Taking a Look at the NFL (And Other Professional Leagues) - Football for Everyone - Football For Dummies (2015)

Football For Dummies (2015)

Part V

Football for Everyone

Chapter 17

Taking a Look at the NFL (And Other Professional Leagues)

In This Chapter

arrow Discovering the NFL’s history and divisions

arrow Checking out the NFL’s schedule

arrow Assembling a winning team

arrow Exploring the business side of professional football

arrow Surveying the other professional leagues out there

The National Football League (NFL) is the pinnacle of football — it’s the ultimate high and the purest acceptance of anyone’s ability as a football player or coach.

howiesays When I was a young player in the NFL, I thought I would always enjoy team success. I thought my team, the Los Angeles (now Oakland) Raiders, would go to the Super Bowl every year because we had so much talent. But so many intangibles are involved in reaching that game — things you can’t control, such as injuries, complacency, and the loss of talent to free agency. Looking back on my playing career, I now understand and appreciate how lucky I was to play in and win one Super Bowl.

Although regular-season games begin in September and end in December or January (followed by a month of playoffs), the NFL is active year-round. During the off-season, players usually continue working out to remain in condition. The league also experiences coaching changes, players switching teams via free agency, the drafting of college players, and various organized training sessions called mini-camps, which last three to four days. Teams report to training camps in late July or early August, where players practice twice a day in preparation for the long season ahead. Preseason games, generally four per team, are played in August, prior to the start of the regular season.

In this chapter, I explain how the NFL started, how it works, how teams reach the playoffs, and how the money filters down to the players. I also demystify the salary cap, player movements, practice schedules, and life in general in the greatest league on earth.

The Birth of Pro Football

In its early days, and I’m talking about the early 20th century, professional football was disorganized because it lacked a league-wide constitution and guidelines. Player movement was rampant, with teams routinely bidding on players. The contracts for star players generally ranged from $50 to $250 a game, which was a considerable amount of money for that time. Many college players assumed aliases so they could earn some of that money by playing on Sunday afternoons with pro teams.

The Ohio League had the strongest professional teams, featuring such legends as the Canton Bulldogs and Olympian Jim Thorpe, until 1920 when a group of seven Ohio League owners/players created the first national professional football league. This organization, known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA), consisted of 14 teams. After the 1921 season, the APFA officially changed its name to the National Football League, or NFL.

In the first few years of the NFL, the championship wasn’t decided on the field. Instead, it was awarded based on a vote at league meetings. The league didn’t have a playoff system to decide its champion until 1933, and it wasn’t until 1936 that every team in the league played the same number of games. In 1933, the NFL divided into a two-division alignment, with the winners of each division meeting for the league championship at the end of the regular season.

In the first 13 years of the NFL, the league lacked franchise stability; numerous teams folded because of a lack of money or fan interest. Nineteen teams lasted only one year, and another 11 managed just two seasons. Only two of today’s teams, the Chicago Bears (originally the Decatur Staleys) and the Chicago Cardinals (whose franchise today resides in Phoenix, Arizona) started with the league in 1920. The Green Bay Packers are the third oldest team, joining the league in 1921.

The AFL joins the NFL

The American Football League (AFL) started in 1960 with eight teams. The pursuit of the same players by both the AFL and the NFL led to escalating salaries, which was great for the players but not for the financial welfare of pro football team owners. The NFL wasn’t used to this kind of competition over talent. When the AFL, strengthened by its own network television contract, considered signing away many of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, it forced the more established NFL to make peace. A merger of the two leagues was the solution, so the AFL and NFL agreed to merge in 1966 under the umbrella of the NFL. The two leagues held a common draft in 1967 and began interleague play in the 1970 season. The first four Super Bowls were actually between the champions of the NFL and the AFL.

Dividing the Ranks: The NFL Conferences

Today, the NFL is divided into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference consists of 16 teams and is divided into four divisions — East, West, North, and South — of four teams each. These division titles don’t necessarily correspond to geographic parts of the country, though. For example, the St. Louis Rams are in the NFC West, yet St. Louis is smack-dab in the middle of the United States. Here’s the breakdown:

· The American Football Conference: Along with six other teams, this conference includes ten franchises (in bold) that were once part of the old AFL.

· East Division: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets

· West Division: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers

· North Division: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers

· South Division: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans

· The National Football Conference: Along with 13 others, this conference includes three franchises (in bold) that once formed the original NFL.

· East Division: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins

· West Division: Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

· North Division: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings

· South Division: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Getting to Know the Pro Football Schedule

The NFL schedule begins with what’s called the regular season. In regular-season games, teams compete for the best win-loss records, and the teams with the best records advance to the playoffs. The playoffs, meanwhile, decide who goes on to the Super Bowl. The following sections look at the ins and outs of the NFL football schedule.

The regular-season games

As laid out in the annual NFL Record and Fact Book, the NFL follows a formula for devising each team’s regular-season schedule. Each team plays 16 games in 17 weeks (the week a team doesn’t play is called its bye week). In the formula, every team’s schedule is as follows:

· Six games, three at home and three away, against the three other teams in the division.

· Four games against teams from a single division of the other conference; these divisions rotate on a four-year cycle.

· Four games against teams from a single division of the franchise’s own conference; these divisions rotate on a three-year cycle.

· Two games against teams within the franchise’s own conference, based on the team’s finish in the preceding season. (For example, a team that finished second one year plays the two second-place teams in the three divisions of its conference that it is not scheduled to play the next year.)

The playoffs

The NFL schedules all those regular-season games — 256 in a typical season — to separate the good teams from the bad. On every level of sports, people want to declare a champion. In the NFL, a total of 12 teams qualify for what amounts to the road to the Super Bowl.

Six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, with the four division winners qualifying automatically. These winners are joined by two teams called wildcard teams, who qualify based on the win-loss records of the remaining teams in each conference that didn’t finish first in their respective divisions. The two division winners with the highest winning percentages host second-round games, skipping the first round of competition. The third and fourth division winners host the wildcard teams in the first round.

The winners of the two wildcard games advance to the second round of contests, called Divisional Playoff games. The lowest-rated wildcard winner (the first-round winner with the worst record) plays the division winner with the best record, and the other wildcard winner plays the division winner with the second-best record. Both division winners enjoy home field advantage, meaning they host the games.

For the Conference Championship games (the third round), any surviving division champion automatically hosts the game. If two division winners survive, the team with the better winning percentage hosts the championship game. If the two surviving teams have identical records, home field is based first on how the two teams performed in head-to-head competition during the season, and then on who had the best winning percentage in conference games. The winner of each Conference Championship game goes on to the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is the NFL championship game. It pits the winner of the AFC against the champion of the NFC. The game was born out of the merger agreement between the former American Football League (AFL) and the National Football League (NFL) in 1966 (see the nearby related sidebar).

In the first two years of the pro football championship, the game was billed as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. But not until the third championship meeting between the two leagues in 1969 did the name “Super Bowl” stick for good. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt coined the name after a toy with super bouncing abilities. That toy was called the Super Ball. He derived the name because the game itself was considered to be “super” (and any fan would agree with that!). The term “bowl” came from the college game, where bowl games remain common post-season rituals (I fill you in on these in Chapter 16).

The Super Bowl is such a huge television and fan attraction that cities routinely bid for the game, offering to defray many of the league’s expenses for hotels and travel. In fact, the Super Bowl is so large that cities are selected to host three to four years in advance. This extra time gives the cities the necessary time to prepare.

In the two weeks between the two conference championship games and the Super Bowl, plenty of hype and hoopla about the game arises. The two teams usually arrive in the host city on the Sunday prior to the game, along with more than 2,500 members of the media. The event has a national flavor to it. Week-long events, such as the NFL Experience (an interactive theme park that features more than 50 attractions, including games like Quarterback Challenge, the Extra-Point Kick, and the Super Bowl Card Show) are planned for youngsters and older fans alike. Parties are held at hotels and venues throughout the host city.

With ticket prices ranging from $500 to $1,200, and most fans paying five times that amount thanks to ticket scalping, the Super Bowl has become more of a corporate event than a bastion for hard-core football fans. You almost have to be somebody important or know somebody important to attend.

Building a Team: It’s More than Drawing Straws

As you can imagine, building an NFL team is no easy task. Most teams focus first on acquiring a solid quarterback and then making sure they have highly skilled players at the running back and wide receiver positions. The offensive line is generally built to suit the specific offensive strategy of the team. For example, if the team likes to pass, it pays a premium for linemen who are better pass-protectors than run-blockers. Having linemen equally suited to both styles is best, but sometimes that’s a luxury when you’re selecting your roster for today’s game. Injuries are a factor when most teams have only eight linemen on their 45-player rosters.

In terms of the defense, teams need at least five star performers among the players on the defensive line, the linebacker corps, and secondary. Ideally, these players rank among the top ten players at their respective positions. Most NFL teams have a core of seven to ten potential-superstar players, an average of 6 to 12 rookies, and a group of veterans (players with at least one year of pro experience) to round out the roster. Many teams have at least 20 players with five or more years of NFL experience.

All teams acquire players through the draft, and their plan is to develop the players that they draft over a couple seasons. They also acquire players by making trades with other teams and getting players through free agency. The next sections explore how coaches and general managers build what they hope will be a winning team.

Drafting players out of school

The annual NFL draft of college players occurs in late April or early May. The three-day event begins on a Thursday in prime time with the first round. Rounds 2 and 3 are on Friday evening with Rounds 4-7 on Saturday. The draft, which is televised by ESPN, was traditionally held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, but beginning in 2015, the draft will take place at different venues that will change from year to year. Some of the top college players are in attendance. If a college player wants to play in the NFL, he usually enters via the draft. In a typical year, more than 2,500 college athletes become eligible for the draft, but only about 260 players are selected.

If a high draft choice doesn’t become a starter by his third season, he’s generally considered a bust. The team then attempts to replace him with a veteran or another rookie and starts the process anew.

Who picks when

The draft consists of seven rounds, and each team is allotted one pick in each round. The team with the worst record in the preceding season selects first. The team with the second worst record selects second, and so on, with the Super Bowl champion picking last in the first round and the Super Bowl loser picking next to last. Teams are allowed 10 minutes to make their selections in the first round, 7 minutes to make their picks in the second round, and 5 minutes in rounds thereafter.

How picks are made

At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Indiana, in February, medical doctors and trainers examine prospective players who are hoping to be drafted. These players also submit to weight-lifting and running drills and perform position-specific drills, such as a throwing drill for quarterbacks and a running pattern drill for wide receivers. Players are also tested for illegal drug use and are given intelligence tests. They’re measured and weighed and interviewed by countless coaches, scouts, and club officials. This information-gathering process is so thorough that a casual observer might think the teams are conducting research for some sort of science project.

On draft day, every team has a representative at the draft venue, but the teams’ coaching, scouting, and executive staffs remain at the training facilities or team headquarters in their respective cities. Teams usually have one huge room called the War Room where staff members meet to discuss potential players and formulate their final decisions prior to announcing selections. Depending on the team, the general manager may consult with the owner, the head coach, the director of college scouting, and other club personnel before making a selection.

Usually, the team is in contact with the player on the telephone prior to making the choice in order to inform him of its decision or to ask any last-minute questions regarding health or personal issues. The NFL security department does background checks on all prospective draft candidates and reports its findings to the member clubs when asked.

remember A player who isn’t selected has the option of signing a free-agent contract with any team that wants him. These players are the lowest-paid players on the rosters, and most are released during training camp. Teams sign many of these players simply to provide bodies for the veterans to practice against during training camp. Of course, some undrafted, free-agent rookies make the team because they have more ability than drafted players. This scenario just shows everyone that scouts, general managers, coaches, and other player-personnel department members can make mistakes when evaluating all the draft-eligible players.

Trading to get who you want

Many trades involve the simple exchange of draft choices as teams want to move either up or down from their assigned selecting spots. The most amazing example of trading for a draft pick occurred prior to the 1999 draft, when Coach Mike Ditka of the New Orleans Saints traded away every pick after his first one, as well as the first- and third-round picks for the following year, to the Washington Redskins to obtain Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, whom he selected fifth overall. The San Diego Chargers, a team in desperate need of a quarterback in 1998, traded two veteran players (running back Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp) and three draft choices (their first-round picks in 1998 and 1999 and a 1998 second-round draft choice) simply to move into the Arizona Cardinals’ position in the 1998 draft. This was a blockbuster trade, considering that the Chargers surrendered a lot for the rights to draft Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf, a huge bust.

Going the free agent route

If a team doesn’t want to wait for the draft or can’t make a trade, it usually opts to find what it considers a star player by signing a free agent, a player who sells himself to the highest-bidding team. Considering the NFL’s salary-cap restrictions, a team must be careful in how it pursues free agents because it may not be able to afford a particular player — that player’s salary may jeopardize the team’s salary scale with its current players (for more information on the salary cap, see the later “The salary cap levels the playing field” section). Players often become upset when a new player earns more than they do, especially if they’re considered team leaders or stars.

The free-agent period begins in March. Most of the top players agree to new contract terms in the first six weeks of the negotiating session, which ends in mid-July (usually prior to the start of training camp). A top free agent usually decides on a few teams he’d like to play for, and then he visits each club’s facility to meet the coaches and general manager. His agent then begins negotiations with the clubs that are interested. A free agent usually makes his decision based on money, but occasionally his choice is affected by the offensive or defensive system the team uses, how he fits in with the other players, his city preference for his family, or whether he likes the coach. Some players accept less money to play with a team they think has the potential to make the playoffs.

Status Is Everything: Determining Player Designations

While listening to commentary or reading about the NFL, you hear many terms that relate directly to a player’s status, such as franchise player or restricted free agent. Hard-core fans frequently toss around these terms. Many of the terms were agreed on by the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association (the union that represents the interests of the players) as part of their collective bargaining agreement (more on that later in the chapter).

tip The following list explains some frequently heard words used to describe players (and the people who broker contract deals for them), as well as some terminology that relates to a player’s experience or active status:

· Accrued season: An accrued season is a season when a player spends six or more regular-season games on a club’s active/inactive list, injured reserve list, or “physically unable to perform” list.

· Agent: An agent is a person who represents a player during contract negotiations. Many agents are attorneys, and some are friends and relatives of the players they represent. Agents are banned from most college campuses.

· First-year player: A first-year player is either a player who has spent the preceding season on an NFL practice squad or a player who was injured and has never played in the NFL before.

· Franchise player: A team can designate only one of its players as a franchise player. This player may not apply to become a free agent and seek a higher salary from another team. In exchange for giving up this right, the franchise player is paid a minimum of the average of the top five salaries at his position or 120 percent of his previous salary, whichever is greater.

· Injured reserve: A team can place an injured player who’s deemed a physical risk in the injured reserve category. Usually, these players require surgeries for their injuries. A player in this category can’t return to the active roster (and play again) during that season.

· Practice squad: Each team can place eight players on the practice squad. These players, who are eligible only to practice, are paid $5,200 at minimum per week and are considered free agents. Teams routinely sign players from other teams’ practice squads in order to complete their weekly 45-man active rosters when they lose players due to injury or release them due to poor performance.

· Pro-Bowler: A Pro-Bowler is a player who’s selected by a vote of the fans, players, and coaching staffs to represent his conference in an all-star game that takes place the week before the Super Bowl. Any player chosen to play in the Pro Bowl is considered among the league’s elite.

· Restricted free agent: A player who has completed three accrued seasons and now has an expired contract is considered a restricted free agent. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the club basically controls what he will be paid. Most teams attempt to sign this player to a long-term contract if he’s deemed a valuable starter. This move prevents the player from being an unrestricted free agent in his fourth season.

· Rookie: A rookie is a player who’s on an NFL roster for the first time. A player who has played in another league, such as the Canadian Football League or the Arena Football League, is still considered a rookie by the NFL.

· Transition player: A team can designate no more than two transition players in the same season (as long it doesn’t also have a designated franchise player). This player’s club must pay him the average of the prior season’s top ten salaries of players at the same position or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A transition player can seek a contract from another team, but his current team has seven days to match the offer and thus retain his services.

· Unrestricted free agent: An unrestricted free agent is a player who has completed four or more accrued seasons and now has an expired contract. Such a player is free to negotiate and sign a new contract with any team.

· Veteran: A veteran has played at least one season in the NFL.

· Waiver system: The waiver system is a procedure by which a player’s contract or NFL rights are made available by his current team to other teams in the league. Teams may waive a player if they no longer need him. During the procedure, the 31 other teams either file a claim to obtain the player or waive the opportunity to do so, thus the term waiver.

The Business of Professional Football

Besides being the greatest league in the greatest game on earth, the NFL is also a big business. How big? The 32 teams in the NFL rake in about $8 to $9 billion a year. The players, of course, want a piece of the action. After all, they’re the ones the fans come to see.

Through collective bargaining agreements that players have had with team owners, the players have received a specific percentage of the gross revenue earned by NFL teams. The collective bargaining agreement also stipulates a maximum amount that teams may spend to compensate players, the so-called salary cap. Keep reading to find out about player salaries, the salary cap, and the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.

Show me the money: Player salaries

Salaries in the NFL have risen dramatically since the late 1980s. In 1988, the average salary of an NFL player was $250,000. It jumped to almost $800,000 in 1997, to $1.5 million in 2005, and to $1.9 million in 2014. These increases came about because of the financial impact of the league’s television contract, which in the years 2006 to 2011 amounted to $3.1 billion per year (at more than 70 percent, television income is the largest portion of a team’s revenue). And in 2014 alone, the major networks and DirecTV paid the NFL 5.5 billion dollars for broadcasting rights. As of 2012, the teams were required under the collective bargaining agreement to share 55 percent of national media revenue, 45 percent of NFL Ventures revenue (merchandising and licensing), and 40 percent of local club revenue with the players.

howiesays My only knock on the wage system is the inequity inside the locker room; a definite caste system exists. According to the way the free agency system has worked since 1993, 20 percent of players tend to receive 60 percent of a team’s payroll, leaving 80 percent of the players with the remaining 40 percent share. To simplify this equation, say a team’s total payroll is about $100 million for 50 players. In that scenario, the breakdown would be 10 players earning $6 million each and the other 40 players earning $1 million each. That breakdown of salaries creates a huge disparity, which is unfortunate considering football is such a team game. And a great, highly paid quarterback is nothing without a good offensive line and solid receivers.

The salary cap levels the playing field

To understand how an NFL team decides which players to draft, sign in free agency, or outright release, you must understand the salary cap. As determined by the collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap is a limit on the amount of money each team can spend for its players’ salaries. When it was introduced in 1994, the salary cap was $34.6 million; by the 2014 season it had risen to $133 million. The cap is based on players receiving a certain percentage of the defined gross revenues of the NFL teams, which include revenue from network television contracts, ticket sales, and product sales.

The salary cap was designed to put all the NFL teams on equal footing when competing for free agents and signing their number-one draft choices. Teams that don’t charge exorbitant ticket prices or whose stadium leases don’t provide extra income from luxury suites, parking, and concessions receive funds from the richer teams to supplement their gross revenues in order to make the cap as equitable as possible.

remember Every team is allowed a maximum of 53 active players under its salary cap. If a player is injured and unable to play the rest of the season, his salary still counts toward the cap. So, teams do a lot of juggling during the season as players come and go — clubs rework contracts in order to fit an entire roster under the cap. Each team usually has one executive, called a capologist, crunching the salary numbers of the players and making sure everyone fits under the salary cap.

NFL teams actually spend more money on their players than the salary cap allows. Teams are also required to fund pension and health benefits. And some teams spend millions in signing bonuses in order to lure top-notch free agents. Teams have been known to give as much as $35 million in one season in signing bonuses alone. These benefits and bonuses are spread out over a period of years, which lessens the impact on the salary cap and makes these perks possible.

Collective bargaining agreements

A collective bargaining agreement is an agreement between employers and employees. Since 1993, team owners and the NFL Players Association have negotiated or agreed to extend their collective bargaining agreement five times. The agreement includes pension benefits and health coverage for retired players. It also dictates what percentage of the league’s gross revenue goes to the players and the salary cap amount.

The current collective bargaining agreement runs from 2011 through the 2020 season and the 2021 NFL draft. Players now receive 55 percent of national media revenue, 45 percent of NFL Ventures revenue, and 40 percent of local club revenue.

How television transformed the NFL

No professional sports league is more impressive or more powerful than the NFL. It’s a multibillion-dollar empire. In fact, the NFL virtually transformed pro sports into a big business, marketing its on-field product through the magic of television. Walking down the street anywhere in the United States, you’re likely to see a fan wearing a ball cap or jersey featuring his or her favorite player or team.

The NFL and television have grown and expanded together over the last 45 years. Television allows cities and states to close ranks; it brings Miami to tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin, and San Diego to New York. The immediacy of television is picture-perfect for a national league full of nationalized teams. For example, no matter where in the United States you live, you can follow the exploits of your favorite team on television. In the early 1990s, southern California was the site of one of the biggest fan clubs for the Cleveland Browns.

Television is a powerful medium that’s perfectly suited to NFL football and its many lengthy timeouts and delays. The timeouts and commercials enable fans to discuss strategy with other fans. In fact, the fans watching at home actually have a better view of what’s going on in a game than the fans sitting in the stands. Television allows fans to see clear replays and up-close shots of the action.

Big business and the television connection

The best way to explain the popularity of the NFL is to study its network television contract. In 2011, the league signed a nine-year, $28 billion national television contract with CBS, NBC, and Fox. The total obligation of these three networks is about $3.1 billion annually. In addition, the NFL has a separate eight-year broadcasting agreement with ESPN that pays $1.9 billion annually. Now you can understand why Super Bowl commercials are priced at $2.5 to 2.8 million per 30 seconds.

For NFL owners, these are pretty good times. Annual income from television networks (about $100 million per team) just about covers payments to players. And owners benefit from the revenue earned from ticket sales, luxury suites, local radio broadcast rights, concessions, and NFL Properties (the NFL’s marketing arm for hats, T-shirts, company logos, sponsorships, and so on). Individual club revenue adds another $40 million to many teams’ bank accounts.

In case you’re wondering, luxury suites are the glass-enclosed private boxes within a stadium that seat as many as 22 fans and include private bars, restrooms, couches, and television sets. Some stadiums feature large VIP restaurants and bar lounges for high-roller fans. Some fans have to pay seat licensing fees simply to earn the right to purchase season tickets. These fees are similar to a surtax on each seat and cost fans, on average, between $500 and $2,500 per seat.

When the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the NFL, beginning play in 1995, the teams had to pay an entry fee of more than $200 million to the NFL. The Cleveland expansion team, which began playing in 1999, paid more than double that amount. And if the league ever expands to Los Angeles, the nation’s number-two television market, the price will probably be even higher.

howiesays Franchise movement

After the NFL lost an antitrust lawsuit in federal court, and thus lost the ability to prevent the Oakland Raiders from moving to Los Angeles in 1982, six franchises have left their home cities in search of better stadium deals.

I started with the Raiders in Oakland, and then played most of my career in Los Angeles. In 1995, unsatisfied with the stadium situation in Los Angeles, the Raiders returned to Oakland. That same season, the Rams vacated Orange County, California, for St. Louis, Missouri, which left the Los Angeles area without a pro football team. In the 1980s, the Colts left Baltimore, Maryland, for Indianapolis, Indiana, and the Cardinals left St. Louis for Phoenix, Arizona.

The biggest jolt to the NFL landscape occurred in 1996, when the Cleveland Browns left Ohio for Baltimore and changed their name to the Baltimore Ravens. A new Cleveland Browns franchise resumed play in 1999. The Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Oilers in 1997, settling in Nashville but playing their games in Memphis. In 1998, the renamed Tennessee Titans began playing home games at the newly built Coliseum in Nashville.

Making the Players’ Health a Priority

In a sport revered for its hard-hitting play and fast action, making sure that football players are healthy has always been a challenge. As I explain in Chapter 1, the early days of football could be very brutal, and the game was almost banned in 1906 after nearly 20 deaths occurred on the football field. In the years since then, equipment innovations and new rules have been introduced to safeguard the players’ health, but football remains a dangerous game.

In 2009, a study commissioned by the NFL determined that retired players were experiencing high rates of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and memory-related diseases. The study concluded that ex-players had these diseases as a result of untreated concussions they experienced in their playing days. In the wake of the study, the league outlawed deliberate helmet-to-helmet hits, which are considered the chief cause of concussions on the football field. The league also instituted a policy whereby a player who shows symptoms of a concussion can’t return to play and must stay off the field until the symptoms disappear.

The current collective bargaining agreement with players (signed in 2011) includes enhanced medical and injury protection benefits. And the NFL has committed to spending close to $1 billion on health insurance and pensions for retired NFL players.

Peeking at Other Pro Leagues

The NFL isn’t the only professional football league. Diehard football fans can watch football games in the summer months, football’s traditional offseason, and watch games in countries other than the United States. Here’s a rundown of the NFL’s sister leagues:

· Arena Football: Arena football is a fast-paced, offense-oriented, indoor sport played with only eight players per team on the field at a time. Six of those eight players must play both offense and defense. The field is 85 feet wide and 66 yards long. Kurt Warner, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV, began his professional career with an Arena Football team (the Iowa Barnstormers, to be exact). To find out more about Arena football, visit www.arenafootball.com.

· Canadian Football League: CFL play begins in June and ends in late November with the Grey Cup, its version of the Super Bowl. The field is 110 yards by 65 yards, bigger than the 100 yards by 53⅓ yards of a U. S. football field, which gives offenses more room to maneuver and score points. Several former NFL stars, notably Warren Moon and Doug Flutie, got their start in the CFL. You can find out more about the CFL by visiting the league website at www.cfl.ca.