Listen to the players and their labor dispute with the NFL comes down to something no rational union in a thriving industry would accept: Work longer and get paid less.

It's more complicated than that, of course, though there is some truth to the union claims. The NFL wants to change the way it does business with players, and the league seems willing to risk a lockout over a longer season and a rookie salary cap once the current collective bargaining agreement expires in March.

Still, it's not likely to garner much sympathy among fans, many of whom have had to do the very same thing in difficult economic times — work longer and get paid less. So the players' union went down a different path this week in objecting to the push for an 18-game regular season.

It said it was worried about injuries. And on this, the most vital issue of all for a professional athlete, the union is right.

More games mean more wear and tear in a sport that already is bruising. And that means the average NFL career of less than four years could be cut even shorter.

"Any time there's more exposure there's more risk for injury," said Wayne Sebastianelli, director of athletic medicine at Penn State University. "I worry about it even for the non-paid athlete in the sense of what they're exposed to."

The NFL wants to trade two meaningless preseason games for two extra regular-season games as a way to bring in more cash and resolve fan complaints about the exhibitions. Commissioner Roger Goodell called it "a significant change" in an e-mail sent last week to some 5 million fans.

Players call it other things.

"To me, right now, as things stand, 18 games, the way it's being proposed, is completely unacceptable. ... I see more and more players get injured every season," Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said.

Both sides are vying for the sympathies of fans who can't bear even the suggestion that their favorite league might not open for business on time next season. Unfortunately, there's not nearly as much talking going on behind closed doors, with no formal talks between the league and the union in weeks.

In his e-mail, Goodell said an agreement can be reached on a new deal "if both sides give a little." But he also made it clear the NFL isn't terribly interested in giving a little on its plan to expand the season.

And, in a league that days ago created a safety advisory panel headed by John Madden and Ronnie Lott to look at ways to keep players healthy, that means more injuries.

"You will have more injuries numerically, there's no doubt," said David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Medical University of South Carolina sports medicine program. "Cumulatively, the effects on the team will be great. There will more holes to fill so you won't have the depth on your roster."

Those holes figure to get even bigger as the season goes on and the wear and tear adds up. Conceivably, starters could play in a whopping 22 games that mean something in a Super Bowl season. Even the two remaining exhibition games will be more important because there won't be as much time to get ready for the season.

Dr. Matthew Matava, the head orthopedic surgeon for the St. Louis Rams, said four to 10 players on his team are injured in a typical week, and that said the longer season would inevitably raise the number.

"The people making these decisions don't necessarily consult the team physicians," Matava said. "But if our coach or GM or ownership asked me that, I would certainly tell them. It makes common sense."

Keeping players healthy during the course of a long season has always been a challenge in the NFL. The union claims that 352 players went on injured reserve this season, each missing an average of 9½ games.

Nevertheless, the NFL is going to get its 18 game season because the NFL gets what it wants. But that doesn't mean the players won't take something out of the deal themselves.

The 53-man roster could be expanded, opening up new jobs for, say, 100 more players. There could be rule changes to move players in and out more easily as baseball does with its disabled list and a reduction in minicamps — mandatory and "voluntary" — to reduce the strain on player bodies throughout the year.

The changes could help mitigate the inevitable increase in injuries, and calm the legitimate fears of players being asked to put in the extra work.

They, after all, are the ones who put their bodies on the line.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org