Monday, July 25, 2011

NFL Deal's Unintended Consequences

As I write, the i's are being dotted and the t's crossed on the new NFL labor deal. Much is being made of how the players managed to stave off a management demand for a longer season while also getting limits slapped on the number of practices a team can hold.

All in all, these are reasonable steps toward a safer future in a violent business. Less wear and tear on the players' bodies has to be a good thing. Each story we read about an NFL retiree fading away in dementia reminds us that the sport needs to work much harder on this issue.

But it may well turn out that the limiting of practices becomes an impediment to younger players. Believe it or not, many (some would argue most) players arrive on the NFL's doorstep with serious fundamental flaws in their game. There's also the steep learning curve faced by players switching from the college game to the pro game. In either case, fewer practices will mean less learning for younger players.

A cynic would say that the players who negotiated this deal took care of themselves (after all, how many 10-year veterans want or need all that extra practice?) at the expense of future generations of players. A cynic might be right.

Yet it's in the NFL's interest to keep its pipeline supplied with capable young talent. My KCBS colleague John Madden thinks it's inevitable that the league will launch (and fund) a sort of "NFL Academy"--a league-wide effort to bring younger players up to speed. The defunct NFL Europe once provided this function, but it shut down 4 years ago.

The other three big North American sports benefit from minor-league or developmental-league operations where players can be groomed. The NFL has no such learning league. A couple of years of watching the impact of limited practices on younger players might force the league to do something about that.

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