The nation’s football players: “Let us play!”

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You knew something was brewing after the National Anthem Sept. 10, 2010, at the kickoff of the NFL season, as players for the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints came out on the field holding up their index fingers.

It wasn't the usual "We're number one, we're the best" message, but a demonstration that they would "stand as one" in collective bargaining talks with the owners.

Like their fellow workers, the members of the NFL Players Association, are facing the possibility of being out of work if their bosses follow up on threats to lock them out when their contract expires March 4.

As they demonstrated before that game, the football players who shove, block and run roughshod over their opponents on the field are sending messages today that off the field and at the bargaining table they are united.

The owners have threatened to lock out the players if the union does not agree to givebacks totaling a staggering $1 billion in salary and benefits.

"This is despite making millions of dollars off the backs of the players," said the AFL-CIO in a recent statement.

The average career length of an NFL player is just 3.4 years because of the physical toll on their bodies. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, which owners claim is already "overly generous," players can be removed from their teams for sustaining a serious injury and get only five years of health care benefits after they retire.

During the 2010 season two thirds of NFL players suffered serious injuries, according to the union, which has just issued its first annual report, entitled "Dangers of the Game of Football."

Injuries jumped from 3.2 to 3.7 per week last year, as opposed to the average for the previous eight years. 63 percent of the players were injured during 2010, as opposed to the prior period, when 59 percent were injured.

"We know injury is part of the game," said Dr. Thom Mayer, medical director for the players' association. "But the more information we gather on health and safety issues, the more likely we are to make the game safer. Because player contracts don't guarantee against injuries the players face sudden and total ends to their careers."

The medical issues are weighing heavily on football players because NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said repeatedly that players are responsible for health care costs during any league lockout.

The union report also deals with severity of injuries, noting that serious injuries increased in 2010, with 16 percent of all players having received severe injuries, as opposed to 11 percent in the earlier eight-year period.

Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who was out of commission for the latter half of 2010 for a knee injury, said in a phone interview, "A football field isn't like the typical workplace. We know we are taking a big chance that we will be injured when we play. We're talking about more than 350 players injured last year alone."

At the start of playoffs, Goodell sent letters to fans and ticketholders, rehashing the owners' position that football players get paid too much.

The players have gotten together with the fans to fight back.

They planned to run a video ad called "Let us Play," put together by players and fans, during CBS's telecast of the NFLPA All Star Game Sat., Feb. 5, a day before the ad extravaganza during Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6. View the video at nflockout.com.

"For us, it's a simple issue: it's a lockout being threatened by billionaire owners of America's most popular sport," said George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs for the players association. "And we haven't spent a penny to get out this joint message from players and fans, "he said.

The union is entitled to two minutes airtime on the CBS telecast of the All Star Game in exchange for its participation as a sponsor.

The players association is normally cautious about doing any kind of business with the networks, which it sees as being sympathetic to the owners. CBS, for example, will continue to pay the owners $4 billion for its rights to coverage even if they lock out the players and there is nothing to cover.

As if to confirm the union's apprehension, CBS has announced it will not run the ad.

Image: Miguel Librero // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0