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I’ve been watching the NFL since 1999. In 2001, I talked my dad into getting NFL Sunday Ticket, one of the greatest gifts I could have asked for. Sure, I wasted 10 hours every Sunday in the basement, watching games from dawn until dusk, all the way through 2004 when the yearly purchase was deemed unnecessary. Fortunately, by the time the 2005 season rolled around, I had turned 21 so I could legally sit at sports bars and watch all day instead.
Fast forward 15 years. As the country — and the world — sits through a winter of discontent, we are fortunate to have football in our lives. As this pandemic has reinforced, among so many other things, is that, for better or worse, change is a part of life. Sports, of course, are no different. And while the NFL brings us comfort now, and in non-pandemic times, the league is inevitably going to evolve to the tune of the almighty dollar.
Which brings us to the topic of NFL expansion. If your brain hasn’t simply blurred everything about the last nine months together at this point, try and think back to March 15. The pandemic was just unfolding in front of our eyes, and the sudden jolt of fear the nation was feeling certainly overshadowed the news that Sunday morning that the NFL and the NFLPA had agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. It was a contentious process, primarily because of the key sticking point in negotiations — the NFL wanted to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17 games. In the end, it was met with only an approval rate of less than 52% of its players, enough to pass muster but not enough to instill confidence in anyone that it was actually a widely-accepted idea — or a sensible one, for that matter.
This also happened to be a sticking point for me, for many reasons.
Now, I don’t know how one can qualify themselves as a “hardcore fan,” or, for that matter, an “obsessed maniac” when it comes to sports. In all likelihood, my status is somewhere firmly in the middle of those two descriptions. In turn, it’s fair to ask why us sports nuts feel the way we do about them. What is it we love so much about the game? And yet, why would something as “simple” as adding a game to the regular season be a big deal?
Let me explain.
Personally, I have been obsessed with numbers my whole life. As much as I love the game of football, I’ve never played it in my life, unless you count being picked last and catching one short pass for minimal yardage every Thanksgiving in my high school alumni pick-up two-hand touch game. Much of my stimulation from sports lie in my love of statistical analysis. Breaking down yearly trends for team records. Scrutinizing weekly trends to try and forecast each game. And, in recent years, I’ve taken it to another level with one of the most fun and challenging pet projects I’ve ever indulged in — creating my own version of the NFL schedule to ease my disdain over the way the current one is constructed.
Growing up, my favorite day of the non-season was always schedule release day. Whether it involved planning a potential trip to a game, or starting to pick results for all 256 contests, it was my version of Christmas morning. That is no longer the case, but up to this point there have been three constants in this world: death, taxes, and the NFL playing 16 games. The NFL’s current schedule structure makes complete, symmetrical sense: 16 games, eight home and eight away. Four divisions of eight teams. Two division games against three divisional foes, eight games against four teams in two other full divisions, and two additional standings-based games. The pieces to the puzzle fit beautifully. Also consider that no other major sports league plays an odd number of games. 162 for MLB. 82 for the NHL and NBA. 34 for MLS and the WNBA.Why change it now? That is, of course, a rhetorical question that even the most casual fan knows the answer to.
I can still recall fretting over how NFL expansion was going to work back in 2001, a year before the Houston Texans officially became the league’s 32nd franchise. Perhaps it then seems ironic that I would be annoyed by this extra game creating an odd number, considering that my first three years of watching the sport was in a world where there were, in fact, an odd number of teams.
This, however, feels much, much different. I have long felt that the NFL, more than any other sports league, has had a nasty habit of trying to fix what is not broken, reeking of desperation for a few extra bucks in the process. Not only does this throw the perfect system completely out of whack, it begins to render all previous records a little more irrelevant. Touchdown records and team records cannot be viewed through the same lens in 17 games as they were in 16. But this is just a part of the equation.
In 2015, the world was introduced more formally to the term “CTE” thanks to the release of the movie “Concussion.” Football has always been a dangerous sport, but the film brought to light the truly violent nature of the game and its nasty after-effects. Surely, many parents reconsidered allowing their children to play football in the immediate aftermath, and surely, current players took notice. The term “player safety” became a mainstay in the lexicon of the league and its fans, and combined with the controversy surrounding player protests of the National Anthem, ratings have undoubtedly taken a hit in the last half-decade.
Still, no one would dare dream that the NFL is hard up for cash. And yet, waving additional fringe benefits in the faces of the players, they were able to get them to agree to the one thing they appeared to dread most — more football games. As one compelling article on NBC Sports called it, this move by the league is “dispiriting,” to say the least.
But it isn’t just player safety why this move hurts me on a personal level. I know I’m not alone when I say that more is not always better. A disheartening part of this for fans like me is that once we become attached to something, we don’t want to let it go. Especially something that appears, on the surface, to make complete sense.
Now I ask that you as a reader will indulge me for a moment. Whether you play sports, watch them, or both, reflect for a moment on why you love them. Is it the physical activity you enjoy when playing? The competition you relish when watching? Is it simply that you have a deep understanding of them and feel “in your element” when discussing them? Or, perhaps, do you simply need an escape from the rigors of every day life, which now includes a global pandemic?
There is no right answer, and no wrong one. The NFL knows what I wish I didn’t, and wish wasn’t true — that me being upset with making an arbitrary change to funnel a few extra bucks into already-loaded owners’ pockets is not ultimately going to push me away from watching, nor will it change my love for escaping reality by researching statistics, analyzing games, and creating personalized versions of the schedule. I am simply one “statistic” to the NFL, a fan they have never met, nor will ever care about, nor will ever cater to individually.
Because the NFL and sports in general have always provided a safe haven for me, something I could turn to in order to distract myself from the frustrations of every day life, I know it will continue to be a part of my identity. But with each passing change, that identity feels a little more foreign to me. Adding a game to the season may seem insignificant, but it continues a trend in the wrong direction.
So as we wind down 2020 — and mercifully so, I might add — we say farewell to something that has been a staple of pro football for 41 of the last 43 seasons (1982 and 1987 were strike-shortened years). This is not the type of 16-game season any of us envisioned, but given the current state of society, it’s a miracle that it’s on track to finish. And perhaps that should be the takeaway. The NFL has provided me with a lot of good for a long time. As I often do when I become disenchanted with the present, I turn to the past. I’ve been watching football for nearly 22 seasons (all of them 16 games). After all, if we can’t appreciate the history and watch reruns from time to time (FYI, 22 regular seasons plus postseasons equals 5,874 games), then why are we so hooked on the NFL? Can we not appreciate what was and has been, but only what is and will be?
The holidays are upon us, and we could all use some good cheer. Sometimes, the NFL changes things for no reason other than money. I’ve had 22 years to enjoy it, and I’d rather reflect fondly on those years than dread the ones ahead. All good things must end, and 16-game seasons are no different.