x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Giving the NFL players a break

Under new rules, number of practice hours have been reduced that will extend careers, curb injury counts and make the sport safer.

By virtue of training less, American football players can hope to improve the odds of living a better life after retirement.
By virtue of training less, American football players can hope to improve the odds of living a better life after retirement.

Roddy White stripped off his pads after practising for nearly two-and-a-half hours on a balmy Georgia morning, knowing he would not have to go through that again.

Not on this day, at least.

Two-a-day practices have been tossed aside, joining leather helmets and the Wing-T offence as NFL relics. Good riddance.

No wonder White was wearing such a big smile as lunchtime approached. "I am done for the day, baby," gloated the Atlanta Falcons' star receiver.

Well, that was a bit of an overstatement. There were still meetings to attend, films to watch, weights to lift. In fact, White and his teammates were not even done on the field on Monday, returning in the afternoon for an hour-long practice known in football terms as a walkthrough.

But considering what training camp was like in past years, this feels like a walk in the park.

The league's new collective bargaining agreement finally puts the focus where it should have been all along. On the players. No longer can wannabe generals (some refer to them as coaches) hold two full practices on a single day. No longer can they push players dangerously close to the brink of exhaustion. No longer can they send out players day after day after day in blazing summer heat.

There are coaches and former players - and even some current players - who look at the changes with a disdainful eye, believing it has brought a little too much humanity to this violent sport.

Hogwash.

These guys are still going to be throwing themselves into each other for our enjoyment on any given Sunday, maybe even more violently than they did before, because they are not so beat up after training camp. At least now, they will improve the odds of living a better life after they put away the helmet and pads. "I'm trying to live to see 65," White said, "and not have headaches."

"I want to be able to play with my kids when I'm done," added a teammate, safety Thomas DeCoud. What is so unreasonable about that?

While studies continue on the devastating effects football can have on the human body, there is already plenty of anecdotal evidence to break your heart many times over. We have had enough players, such as the late John Mackey, the eloquent, thoughtful Hall of Famer whose mind slipped away in his golden years, undoubtedly because he took far too many blows to the head.

Too bad this did not come along sooner for players, such as Mackey, or even Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Casey Hampton, who is 33 years old and going into an 11th season that probably feels like his 111th.

"Coming in under this system and playing this long," he said wistfully, "I could only imagine how much better my body would feel."

Still, there are those - largely in the coaching ranks - who would have you believe these new rules are going to produce a league full of wimps. Many of them speak through gritted teeth, saying these are the rules and they will just have to adapt. Occasionally, one will slip up and say what the majority of them are thinking.

"I think the players got their way a little bit," said Paul Alexander, the offensive line coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. "It's like your kid wants a pony, and the kid gets a pony. I didn't get my kids a pony."

Some have raised the notion that limiting the amount of contact and mandating once-a-week off days during camp - another player benefit in the new agreement - will result in them being less prepared for the rigours of the game, actually resulting in more injuries.

Again, hogwash.

Seriously, does anyone really believe that a player's odds of getting hurt will actually increase because he did not spend enough time running into other gargantuan men at full speed when it did not count in the standings?

"The statistics say it's like being in a car crash every time you make a tackle," DeCoud said. "Well, we're saving ourselves from a lot of car crashes."

The Cleveland linebacker, Scott Fujita, who is on the executive committee of the players' union, said a study, done a few years ago, found that more than half the reported injuries in a given season occurred during the first two weeks of training camp. Fortunately, there are coaches who do not live in the dark ages. The New Orleans defensive co-ordinator, Gregg Williams, says he petitioned the league nearly a decade ago to do away with two-a-days.

"For people not to understand that fatigue and accumulated contact are directly related to injuries, well, they're not very smart," he said.

Maybe in a different era, there was some justification for two-a-days. Some long-time executives remember the 80-20 rule: A team figured 80 per cent of the players would report to camp in shape, while the rest would need a lot of extra running. These days, there probably are not more than one per cent who require anything more than the usual conditioning.

Many players believe the quality of the game will actually improve because they are going be fresher, stronger, faster for the season.

"You can take care of your body the right way," Fujita said. "You can see guys conditioning after practice. Most years, you really can't do that because you're trying to preserve everything you've got for the next practice. We can actually train our bodies in the weight room. We can get with the trainers and do some things we normally wouldn't have time to do."

As if health and safety were not enough reason to embrace these new guidelines, the fans will also come off as winners. Anyone out there against having their favourite player be able to stay on the field longer than he does now? Well, check back in a decade. The average career will undoubtedly be extended. "Without these two-a-days," said DeMarcus Ware, the Dallas linebacker who led the league in sacks two of the past three years, "the sky's the limit."