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Thursday, March 20, 2014
Players picking the right battle

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

Newly elected NFL Players Association president Eric Winston says he and his union are taking a clear stand against the NFL's idea of an 18-game regular season. "Dead in the water," he told USA Today Sports. "I won't let it happen."

It's a strong statement, and one that could end up making Winston look foolish if the 18-game season comes to fruition or if the union ends up agreeing to it in exchange for some other major concession down the road. But it's the right stand for Winston to take, and it symbolizes the ongoing change in the NFL conversation about player health and safety.

Eric Winston
New NFLPA president Eric Winston is standing firm against the idea of adding games to the schedule.

The players oppose an 18-game regular season for the simple reason that they feel they already put their bodies through more than enough over 16 games. The NFL asserts that it wouldn't be adding games, since it would subtract two preseason games that everybody hates anyway and keep a total of 20 games between preseason and regular season. But the players correctly reject that argument, because as everyone knows the grind and punishment that come with regular-season games is far more intense than what's required in the preseason. In August, if your hamstring is a little tight, you sit. In December, if your hamstring is a little tight, you might play, and risk pulling it, because the game matters.

The owners are, as always, looking for ways to make more money. And turning two easily ignored preseason games into regular-season games would help them sell more of everything from beer to foam fingers to TV deals. But while the players share in the league's revenues and would also derive a financial benefit, they oppose this on the grounds that they would prefer to regulate the extent to which they are asked to damage themselves physically for the enjoyment of the general public.

If there's an issue on which the union should feel comfortable taking a stand, it is this one. If the legacy of the men who currently run the NFLPA is that, during their tenure, strides were made to improve the short-term and long-term quality of life for their members, they would have the right to feel proud. And in standing up to the owners on this issue, that is what they're doing. Sure, more money is always great, but not if it means you're in a wheelchair when you're 45.

This is a consistent theme for the NFLPA over the past half-decade. They allowed the owners to take back a larger percentage of revenues in the last CBA and stood down on player discipline issues in exchange for quality-of-life improvements. Improved and prolonged health care, during and after their careers, for themselves and their families. Reduction in offseason workloads. Rules governing the violence allowed in training camp practices. Off days during the season. And, oh by the way, on the money issue, a stricter requirement that the owners spend a percentage of the revenue on player salaries instead of falling way short of the salary cap and pocketing the dough.

The statement the players are making is that they are human beings -- not gladiators, not disposable, not cartoon characters who appear in a show on your television every Sunday and beat each other up for three hours. Laugh if you like, but don't doubt that there's a section of the NFL fan base that looks at it that way, and I have a hunch it's a pretty big one. If the NFLPA has found its voice, and its message is that its members must be looked at as people and not game pieces, then it's doing right by the men who are paying its dues.

So, good for Eric Winston for standing up against the 18-game season. And phooey to those who insist it's inevitable because the league and its owners always get what they want. Even if that's the case, it shouldn't stop a justified opposition from standing up to something it believes to be wrong. There's a lot to be said for fighting the good fight. And when your cause is the fair and humane treatment of your fellow human beings, the fight doesn't come any better.