WASHINGTON – Concerns about injuries and insurance make the league's push to switch to an 18-game regular season a major sticking point in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, according to two NFL players who are members of the union's executive committee.
The NFL wants to add two games to the current 16-game format for the regular season, and eliminate two of four preseason games, saying fans would prefer that and more revenue could be generated.
"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 Tuesday on a media conference call arranged by the union.
"There are so many things now — with player health and safety, and the future of us and our families — that aren't even being considered. And for us, it's disappointing," Fujita said. "It feels like a slap in the face."
Union spokesman George Atallah said Tuesday that 352 active players went on injured reserve at some point during this season, each missing an average of 9½ games.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said "a few hundred" players out of the nearly 2,600 that go through the system each season — 80 with each of 32 teams entering camp — go on injured reserve.
"That number would include undrafted rookies put on IR for the season and players with relatively minor injuries who then reach injury settlements with their teams and are released," Aiello wrote in an e-mail. "We do not know how the union calculated games lost."
Both Fujita and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, the other player participating in Tuesday's call, went on IR in 2010.
"We put our bodies on the line and produce a lot of revenue and we get five years" of post-retirement health insurance," said Foxworth, who missed all season after tearing his right knee during an orientation practice the day before training camp. "And then they want to tack on two more games ... which is just going to multiply the injuries and the ailments that we're going to see after we go into our 40s, 50s, 60s — 70s, if we're lucky. ... We're not willing to budge on health and safety, and we'd like to gain some more ground in ways we can protect former players and current players."
Right around the time the call was beginning, the NFL announced the launch of www.NFLHealthandSafety.com, a website the league touted as "providing information on the various ways" it's addressing those issues.
The league's lead negotiator, Jeff Pash, said last month "it is realistically an easier agreement to reach in the context of an 18-game regular season."
But Fujita said Tuesday: "The 18-game discussion is not even worth having at this point, because there's nothing on the table from their end that makes any one player consider playing 18 games."
The current CBA expires in March and the union long has said it expects NFL owners to impose a lockout, affecting the 2011 season. The NFL has not missed games because of labor problems since 1987, when the players went on strike.
Asked if he thinks a lockout is inevitable this time, Fujita replied: "It certainly looks that way to me."
Among other issues discussed on Tuesday's call:
— Fujita took a swipe at Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for his comments during an interview with CBS last month. In a portion of the interview posted on the Internet, Jones is asked whether he thinks a lockout "might be disastrous for the game?" Jones' response: "No, I do not. But I know that the sentiment is not to have a lockout."
Fujita's take: "For him to say something like that, to me, is one of the more irresponsible things I've heard through this whole process."
Fujita said he gets the sense owners might not be unified, because some want to get a deal done, while others — and he cited Jones as an example — "are fine with letting this thing run down to at least the 11th hour and try to squeeze the players into accepting a deal that's not fair to us."
— Atallah said the union expects a decision from a special master "sometime before the Super Bowl" in the players' complaint that the NFL structured network TV contracts to guarantee revenue even if there's a lockout — while not maximizing revenue from other seasons when the league would have to share that income with players.
"We're arguing that those contracts were made explicitly in an effort to gain leverage over the players," Atallah said.
Said Fujita: "Does it sound like 'lockout insurance'? Absolutely. Does it sound like a war chest to me? Absolutely," he said, adding that it seems as though the networks are "funding the lockout."
— Fujita and Foxworth both are against the league's desire for some sort of rookie wage scale.
"It seems like the league is asking the union to bail them out because of some of their bad decisions and draft choices," Fujita said. "That's not our responsibility. We weren't the ones twisting their arms when they signed guys like ... JaMarcus Russell to those huge contracts."
Noted Foxworth: "They pay a lot of people a lot of money to scout, so the teams who keep ending up with busts might want to do a better job of selecting scouts and general managers."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.