Considering the Role of Player Health in NFL Expansion to Europe

Rumors abound regarding one of the league’s teams – let’s call them “the Shaguars” – relocating to London.  According to Gil Brandt from Sirius XM NFL Radio, the NFL is focused on moving whatever team it may be,  the right way, with as much support and re$ource$ as possible, before continuing to try to expand the Europe market.  But I don’t think the plan will work, as heavily resourced as it may be or as much attention as it gets from the NFL.

For the European market to develop the way Goodell wants it to, the NFL can’t just step into the market, however boldly, with just one team… they need to establish a full division on the continent.   A key aspect of this proposal comes from the health-related disadvantages at play.

Every week throughout the season, we watch as players are injured, we monitor their progress through weekly injury reports, we listen for clues as to their health, and we make predictions based on their availability.  When teams travel for away games, the players lose valuable time they could have had in the training room and they experience the tiring effects of travel (fatigue, swelling of tissue, lower oxygen, etc.).  The team also loses the advantage of being able to declare whether someone will play (“so-and-so didn’t travel with the team”).  If only one team is moved to London, they must fly “across the pond” to play 8 away games.  What if that team’s division has the AFC or NFC West in their lineup that year?  Do they fly a day or two earlier than usual so they can acclimatize to the time zone?  Do they start their workdays at 3pm to keep in sync?

Now, the schedulers would likely minimize the number of times the team takes that flight, but therein lies another disadvantage – it might not be feasible for the team to get home between back-to-back away games as they do now.   Outside of their own facilities, players won’t have the equipment they’re familiar with, perhaps some of the trainers they’re familiar with (because they will be in London tending to players who stayed behind to heal), and, of course, the comfort of their families.

Establishing an entire division in Europe seems like a more reasonable approach simply from the perspective of players’ physical health.  For argument’s sake, let’s say the NFC West were picked up and plopped in Europe (I’m not moving my Colts, nor am I moving Peyton Manning, thank you very much). 

So we might have the Frankfurt 49ers, the Calais Cardinals (I can see Coach Arians in his red beret now), the Scotland Seahawks, and the Ramstein Rams (yes I realize I gave Germany 2 teams, and England none… but the alliteration makes me happy).  Each team would have 8 home games, and their 3 away divisional games would be within short flight or train distance.  That leaves only 5 games that would require travel to the US.  Those could be scheduled as 2 or 3 groups of games, where those groups would be themselves in close proximity to one another.

So if the NFC Europe division had the AFC South on the schedule, the games could be scheduled such that the 49ers play their AFC South away opponents in subsequent weeks, perhaps followed by the Buccaneers (were they on the schedule).  While the issue of facilities and trainers remains, the impact of travel is reduced, and players on those teams would be at less of a disadvantage.

Of course there are flaws in this proposal, too.  Most players are in the league for 3-4 years, and many play for more than one team during that time.  There is a strong disincentive for players to want to move to another continent, into a foreign culture, in which a foreign language may be spoken, for what is likely to be a short career.   And there are hundreds of other elements to consider in such a big move – should the NFL pay for coach and player housing? How do visas work for professional athletes?  Will health insurance work the same way? Can a player refuse to play in Europe?

What are your thoughts?