CHICAGO — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stamped this week’s approval of a 17-game regular season schedule as “a monumental moment” in league history. But the vote to push forward with an extra game for every team wasn’t unanimous. According to multiple league sources, Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey voted against the schedule expansion, a revelation first reported Wednesday by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham.
McCaskey hasn’t yet been made available to comment on his dissenting vote and will be pressed on the matter whenever he speaks next. Heading into training camp in 2019, McCaskey expressed at least some reservations on the possibility of the regular season being extended, saying he was eager to learn more about how such a move might affect player health and safety.
“We’d have to see what the proposal amounts to, what it would detail,” McCaskey said then. “… I’ll be interested to see what the particulars are.”
During virtual league meetings this week, club owners overwhelmingly approved the 17-game schedule, which comes a year after the NFL expanded the playoffs by two teams. Earlier this month, the league announced a series of major new TV and media deals as well. These are all developments that will significantly increase the league’s revenue stream, which will have financial benefits for everyone involved.
Still, many players remain justifiably concerned about the extra health risks they’ll be taking on with another game, even as the NFLPA pushes the league to further ease the demands on players in other ways.
In agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement in the spring of 2020, the players union granted the NFL an opening to lengthen the regular season in exchange for players receiving a larger guaranteed share of revenues, improved benefits, higher minimum salaries and additional reductions of work time.
On Tuesday, Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter, who is the president of the NFLPA, posted a piece on the NFLPA website emphasizing the ongoing push by players for a less demanding schedule. Tretter continues to spearhead an effort to continue reducing the preseason. In addition, he noted that a number of modifications made in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — with no on-field work for teams in May, June or July; the cancellation of preseason games; and a longer ramp-up phase before an abbreviated training camp began — were beneficial to players’ well-being.
“Maintaining some of these changes long-term is in the best interest of the game,” Tretter wrote.
The NFLPA has noted that concussions fell by 30% in 2020. Heat-related illnesses also dropped. Along with those developments, Tretter stressed that the league saw its highest-scoring regular season in history with an average of 49.6 points scored per game. Eighteen teams remained in playoff contention into Week 17 as well.
“We learned that the game of football did not suffer at the expense of protecting its players more than ever before,” Tretter argued. “… Despite the evidence in front of us, we still hear people within the football community pedaling the same tired excuses and dragging their feet on change. It makes me wonder if their ‘concern for the product’ is simply a veiled fear of change — or worse, a fear of losing control. The facts support prioritizing the protection of the players, and the NFLPA will not be deterred by talking points, threats and hypotheticals.”
In the summer of 2019, Akiem Hicks and Allen Robinson were among the Bears players who weren’t exactly enthusiastic about adding a 17th game to the regular season.
“Look,” Hicks said then, “this is the product, right? The players. We’re the product. With what we’re putting out on the field, you want guys to feel healthy. You want guys to be fast, to hit hard. You want all those things out of the game. And if going to a longer regular season doesn’t benefit that, then maybe we shouldn’t do it.
“But if that can be maintained through the entirety of the season, then it’s worth considering. Still, I always say you want to retain the game itself. And if the essence of the game doesn’t stay the same, then what’s the point? You’re just putting stuff on TV.”
Added Robinson: “As everybody knows, the 16-game season is already grueling enough on the body. … It becomes a long year. From that perspective, adding games would be tough.”
With this week’s approved expansion of the regular season, the league reduced the preseason from four games to three for each team as a corresponding measure.
Still, the league’s landmark move did not come without opposition from McCaskey.