Just days after the National Institutes of Health concluded that CTE contributed to the suicide of the late Junior Seau, Rob Gronkowski, perhaps the best tight end in football, broke his forearm in the first quarter of the Patriots' first playoff game. Gronkowski, who previously broke the same arm and had surgery that cost him five weeks of the regular season and who played in last year's Super Bowl essentially on one leg, is lost for the year.
A world away, a kinder, gentler sport began in Melbourne with the Australian Open. Tennis, never to be confused with the NFL, has commenced without Rafael Nadal, one of the two combatants who in last year's final with Novak Djokovic gave the sport one of its greatest championship matches ever, a brutal, five-hour, 53-minute classic. Nadal has been one of the most vocal players about protecting the health of the athlete against the rigors of the ATP tour, even as his knees have steadily grown creakier. Now at 26, he hasn't played a match since the end of June and it is unclear just what kind of player he will be if he plays as scheduled in the Brazil Open next month.
In the NBA, the New York Knicks are one of the surprising stories of the season. They have the fifth-best record in the league, and the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. They, along with a choice few, seem to have a legitimate chance to challenge the defending champion Miami Heat during the playoffs, with one, serious caveat being whether the full roster will be able to withstand the length of the season to be healthy enough for what is essentially a two-month postseason. Already, not even at the All-Star break, the attrition begins: the Knicks are not sure Rasheed Wallace will play again this season.
Its mission to be a multibillion-dollar industry accomplished, professional sports has reached its tipping point. The players, already too big, already too fast, already too strong, are now engaged in a game of attrition not against the other team, but against the regular season. The most important statistic in the NFL isn't the win-loss column but the number of players on the injury report. The best team in the NFL does not win the Super Bowl nearly as often as the healthiest.
Last season, the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, both old and prideful, were considered hopefuls to win the NBA title for one main reason: the shortened, 66-game schedule due to the management lockout would reduce the miles of wear on the players. The Spurs won the West even while strategically resting those vets, and both teams made it to the conference finals.
Nadal has won at least one singles Grand Slam title every year since 2005, but has made fewer appearances the past three years because of those knees. He has complained loudly and bitterly that the tennis circuit -- already too long in his view -- is filled with too many joint-crushing hard-court tournaments, which combined with the transition of the game to a punishing, baseline marathon game, creates a recipe for extended, debilitating injury.
None of these examples are remarkable or even very much worthy of the debate. The collision comes with another truth: the money is so big that reform -- either to improve the quality of the game or its safety -- is virtually impossible to the people who make the decisions.
Before Gronkowski, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III lay crumpled near his goal line with torn knee ligaments and a loss to the Seahawks. That same day, 40 miles north, Ray Lewis was hugging NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who once foolishly advocated an 18-game season and is now plotting ways to push two more playoff teams into the postseason, even as his advertising wing churns out propaganda commercials claiming commitment to player safety.
There is safety and there is quality, neither of which can compete with money. The BCS, clearly feeling no shame or concern regarding the quality and integrity of its championship, has been perfectly comfortable with its two college football teams waiting 44 days between games to play its championship. No sport on any level waits six weeks within the same season to play a game.
The NBA playoffs, nearly lasting two full months, represent roughly 20 percent of the entire season for the teams that make the Finals. More than half the teams (16 of 30) earn the postseason, making an 82-game season generally unnecessary.
Major League Baseball, ostensibly the summer game, now plays its most important games in the growing cold of late fall, which in some markets is the onset of winter. Three of the past four World Series were scheduled to end in November and two, 2009 and 2010 actually did. The past two offseasons have featured moves by teams flush with cash from television deals (Los Angeles Dodgers, Angels, Texas Rangers) and the overall health of the game is sound. Yet owners have refused to either shorten the season or schedule twi-night doubleheaders to prevent the World Series being played on 35-degree nights. Baseball's most recent update was emblematic of the sports world in general: it added two more wild-card teams and playoff games to the calendar. Next year's World Series is again scheduled to end during the first week of November.
The NHL, despite itself, might actually have a compelling season because with a 48-date schedule, each game carries nearly twice the significance, just as in the NBA during its past two shortened seasons. Players could be fresher, teams healthier, quality improved when the regular season ends in April.
The troubling aspect isn't that sports are profitable. It is that sports are so profitable that leagues, owners and commissioners could take a moment and attend to the sinking quality of the product, but they won't. Players have reached their physical limits, but the revenue of the industry seems infinite, and there's an insatiable demand for games, and a willingness to provide them. The 24/7 cable-Internet cycle that is the source for so much of this new money also demands programming. The result is an elongation of seasons, a dilution of product and increased risk for players, who especially in the NFL are more disposable than ever.
Ironically, teams and to a large extent the media blame the players for a rampant performance-enhancing drug culture without considering how prolonged physical demands could result in drug use, and without recognizing athletes as fungible with a desire to earn as much money as possible before being carted into retirement on a stretcher. Many of this generation's stars might not survive as many years as their predecessors because they'll wear themselves out playing more games over more days every year. The sports world has chosen quantity and cash over quality, over safety, over everything.