Even if you don't like or follow European soccer, there's something unfolding there this season that may be a window into American professional sports.The storyline in the first month of the Euro season is how the world has turned upside down. Lowly Northampton Town upsets mighty Liverpool in the Carling Cup. Barcelona loses at home to newly promoted Hercules. Leading the German Bundesliga are not the usual suspects such as Bayern Munich but relative unknown Mainz. And in France? Don't look for Marseilles and Lyon at the top of league. No, it's St. Etienne and Rennes.
Commentators appear at a loss to explain the new parity. But most of it is likely the result of just one factor—last summer's World Cup. The best players in the world—who mostly play for a lot of those formerly best teams now stumbling—have been playing soccer pretty much straight through without a rest for 14 months now. Understandably, many are broken and bushed—mentally, if not physically.
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This is a story that should concern Americans because there is evidence that our athletes in other sports may well be suffering a similar fate. Several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal documented how major league baseball players this season have combined for over 450 trips to the DL this season—15 per team. That's up from an average of 9.3 per team only 25 years ago and 12.2 in the 1990's.
The standard explanation is better diagnosis—though that has echoes of blaming the patient. A likelier explanation is that driven by financial pressures, the season is too long and that an offseason that used to be spent resting and carousing is now spent in the gym. Yes, the regular season is only eight games longer than a generation ago. But the games are longer, the travel mileage is considerably greater and, more important, the postseason can be 12 games longer—which translates into almost a month more of highly charged baseball for the champions. No wonder no one repeats.
In pro football, the rash of injuries is blamed on bigger and faster players. And of course there are different standards in a game where the goal, in part, is to inflict pain. Pierce Scranton, a former Seattle Seahawks doctor and former president of the NFL Physicians Society, once told ESPN: "Medicine in the NFL is different than medicine in the real world. A patient who falls and hurts his hip probably would be out of work for three months with a hip pointer. In the NFL, that player would be back on the field the next week."
But consider, too, that the season has slowly expanded over time from 12 to 16 games and the owners would like to add yet another two contests. Just looking at probabilities alone—and of course that's not the only factor—the risk of injury is much higher.
American pro basketball and hockey athletes play over 100 games in a season. But their saving grace, if there is one, is that their regular seasons are different. It's far easier to make the playoffs in these sports, and all moving up places in the 80-or-so-game regular season standings does is sometimes get you an extra home playoff game. No wonder athletes in these sports are commonly known to take their feet off the pedal in the regular season—especially during road games. The prototype is last year's Boston Celtics—which pretty much spent the entire regular season just trying to get their best players healthy for a playoff run, which then carried them within a half of the championship.
The problem, of course, is that all the financial pressure is on expanding the schedule, not limiting it. And, in the era of around-the-clock sports news, woe is the player who dogs it because he's overworked and tired. The irony is that an injury-prone pool of athletes levels the playing field, reducing the influence of superstars. In the future, as the length of the seasons and injuries increase, so will the Cinderella stories, just like in European soccer today. The New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals were the harbinger of a new age. Maybe the San Diego Padres are too.