Guaranteed money could be key to avoiding NFL lockout
By EDDIE PELLS
AP National Writer
Monday, January 28
Though the next labor fight between the NFL and its players is more than two years off, one issue is already clear.
Avoiding a work stoppage in 2021 could depend on whether players can secure more guaranteed money in the next collective bargaining negotiations with the league.
“You can’t look at it in a vacuum, because all these contracts are different,” union president Eric Winston said. “But if a guy gets 30 percent guaranteed and we can push that to 50, or a guy gets 60 and we can push it to 80, we should try to do that. It should be on the minds of everybody.”
The current collective bargaining agreement expires a little more than two years after the Super Bowl this Sunday, and some players are already expecting a lockout that could be even worse than the one that lasted 132 days before the previous agreement was signed in 2011.
Though the league’s biggest stars receive hefty signing bonuses, which gives them money in pocket before they play a down, the push for more guaranteed money across the life of contracts has slowly picked up steam over the past few seasons. The contract holdouts by Le’Veon Bell and Earl Thomas this season put the issue into vivid focus.
To protect against future injury, Bell refused to sign a one-year contract as Pittsburgh’s franchise player, and Thomas held out for a new contract before his current one expired. Bell never played; Thomas came back and broke his leg. If his value on the free-agent market this offseason drops precipitously, it will add fuel to the argument that NFL players, who put themselves at greater risk than those in the NBA or baseball, deserve guaranteed contracts, the norm in those leagues.
“You don’t know what is going to happen, and with the uncertainty of that, you want security,” Seahawks offensive lineman Duane Brown said. “This game is very difficult. Guys put a lot into their craft, their bodies, trying to be the best that they can be, and you can’t control everything.”
The current CBA, negotiated in 2011, increased the percentage of salary cap space devoted to veteran players by creating a rookie pay scale. (Though the pay scale has decreased the payout, it has, ironically, resulted in most first-round draft picks’ contracts being fully guaranteed.) Another feature of the contract, the minimum salary benefit, also put the veterans on equal footing with younger players in regard to the salary cap. The thinking was that would make more money available to keep some of the “middle-class” veterans playing longer.
But an Associated Press analysis of rosters over the past 14 seasons showed average experience has been on a fairly steady decline — from 4.6 years in 2005 to 4.3 in 2018. It only served to widen the gap between high-profile players with leverage and those without it.
The union argues it has helped all players by getting steady increases in the salary cap, which has grown from $120 million in 2011 to $177 million this season. More money for everyone, the union says, should create better opportunities for more players.
Yet even with more money to go around, the guarantees remain a thorny issue for players at both ends of the salary structure.
Winston says the best way to ensure more guaranteed money for players is to get them to free agency sooner. Currently, most rookies aren’t eligible until they’ve played four years. At that point, the most sought-after free agents get the best signing bonuses. Those bonuses have been part of the NFL’s way of doing business, as opposed to the NBA and Major League Baseball, which give more annual guarantees.
But Winston believes guaranteeing annual salaries isn’t the panacea some make it out to be.
“We live in this world where we think, ‘If we had guaranteed contracts, I’d get six years and $120 million guaranteed.’ No. It would probably be three and 60. It’s just one of those things where I think there’s a give and a take” he said.
Another sticking point in the upcoming negotiations will be over commissioner Roger Goodell’s sweeping power to discipline players, which has impacted Ezekiel Elliott , Tom Brady and others. In the last negotiation, players dropped this issue in exchange for other concessions.
And the league could propose an expansion of the regular season, arguing it’s the easiest way to grow revenues that could be passed along to players. The union has rejected that in the past, and Winston suggests it will do so again.
“I’ve never had a player come up to me and say, ‘We want to play more games,’” he said.
All of which leads back to the stark reality of pro football. It’s brutal, both in a physical sense and a business sense. The majority of players would like to find ways to extend their careers, and guarantee themselves more money while they’re at it.
“Guys have some really good ideas on it,” Winston said. “But we need to understand is that none of this is A or B. It’s A, B, C, D, E. … Every player is different, every contract is different. There are a lot of choices that have to be made here.”
AP Pro Football Writer Dennis Waszak Jr., Sports Writer Tim Booth and and AP Data Journalist Larry Fenn contributed to this report.
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AP analysis: NFL centers seeing shorter career longevity
By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
Monday, January 28
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Pro Bowl center Alex Mack rattled off all he does before the snap: Checks for blitzes, keeps an eye on the play clock, makes blocking adjustments and communicates all the changes to everyone else.
All that happens in seconds — with 300-pound defenders a few inches away and ready to pounce.
“It’s unlike anything else in football,” the Atlanta Falcons standout said.
Some might argue the center is the most indispensable player on the roster — the player who mans the only position guaranteed to touch the ball on every play. He calls the shots for the offensive line and begins each play.
But an Associated Press analysis revealed that despite their unique skill set, it was centers — not running backs, linebackers or defensive backs — who were becoming more endangered more quickly than players at any other position . In 2009, the average center had six years in the league. This season, the average center had four years of experience.
“Really? That’s shocking,” Mack said. “I guess, technically, it’s the last spot for the O-line. If you’re a tackle who can’t play in space, they move you to guard. If you’re a guard that’s having trouble, they move you to center. Oftentimes center is the position that can get the most help. A lot of the blocks are double-teams, so you’re not put on an island nearly as much, so it’s always a position that you can try to improve.”
Most teams have in recent years, too.
Thirty-eight centers have been drafted over the last five years, and none of them has made a Pro Bowl. Sixteen of those have been taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
It helps explain why the experience of the average center has fallen. While every position outside of quarterback, kicker and punter has seen a decline, no position sees this sharp a drop-off in the AP survey.
“It’s one of those tough, nasty, gritty positions that you have to just keep fighting at, and kids nowadays just aren’t quite the same,” said retired NFL center Brad Meester, a 14-year starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Even at the high school level, those kids are getting harder and harder to find anymore.
“They’re just not the same as they were years ago. I don’t know if that’s been part of the reason play has gone down and we’re seeing this dip in longevity, but it could be.”
Since centers are typically the smallest offensive linemen in college, Mack and Meester believe some undersized guys have trouble making the NFL jump — especially with defensive linemen getting bigger, faster and stronger each year.
“In college, if you have a guy who’s big enough to play in the NFL, he’s probably playing tackle or guard,” Meester said. “He might get moved to center at the next level, and then you end up with centers that are a little raw going into the NFL.”
That’s exactly what happened to Chicago Bears Pro Bowl center Cody Whitehair, who started his college career as a guard and moved to left tackle as a senior at Kansas State. The Bears drafted him in the second round in 2016 and then moved him to center a week before his rookie year.
“It’s hard to transition into the NFL,” Whitehair said. “It definitely takes a special breed to come in out of college and be ready to start on the offensive line, especially at center.”
Still, Whitehair was surprised to learn that the longevity of centers isn’t what is used to be. He said it could be that centers are asked to do so much more in the NFL than in college, where more prevalent spread systems often take their cues from the sideline inside of adjusting on the fly.
But Whitehair pointed to Mack (10th season), New Orleans’ Max Unger (10th), Philadelphia’s Jason Kelce (8th) and the Pouncey twins (8th and 7th, respectively) as long-term starters he thought would be enough to make a difference in the changing landscape.
“We just got to get the younger generation to follow in those footsteps,” Whitehair said.
For every success story such as Whitehair, it seems there’s a recently drafted center who’s already out of the league — guys like David Molk, Philip Blake, Peter Konz, Khaled Holmes, Bryan Stork and Hroniss Grasu to name a few.
“A center really is your quarterback of the offensive line, the guy who right along with the quarterback is reading defenses, reading stunts, blitzes, secondaries,” Meester said. “If you get a guy in there that can do that, you keep him.”
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Houston QB Watson surprises mom with home renovation
By KRISTIE RIEKEN
AP Sports Writer Tuesday, January 29
HOUSTON (AP) — Deshaun Watson’s mother spent years encouraging him to chase his dreams.
Now that Watson has achieved one of his biggest goals of reaching the NFL, the Houston Texans quarterback is giving back to her by renovating the home he grew up in.
“She is my rock, my hero,” Watson said. “She always was there giving 100 percent each and every day to try to be the best she can be to help her kids be successful.”
It’s been well-documented that the Watson family received a home from Habitat For Humanity when Deshaun was 11 years old in Gainesville, Georgia. His mother still lives in that house, but now that he’s receiving NFL paychecks he decided it was time to spruce it up.
His mother is a survivor of throat cancer and watching her fight through the disease made him even more determined to do something special for her.
“She deserves it,” Deshaun said. “It’s been a solid home for us for … over 12 years now. (But) living room, kitchen and dining area, those areas need a little touch up. Everything she went through, this is really the smallest thing I can do for her.”
Watson chronicled the spiffy makeover of his mother’s living room, dining room and kitchen on an online show called “My Houzz,” which can be seen here , and used the renovation website houzz.com to plan and carry out the project.
Watson worked with a contracting team he found on the website, but he selected everything for the renovation. He picked the perfect lights, the color scheme, artwork for the wall, the right bar stools and kitchen cabinet, among dozens of other additions. Watson was thrilled to learn he could add a fireplace, something his mother had long wanted.
He was pleased when told there’d be no need to build a chimney because it was an electric fireplace that starts with the flip of a switch.
The 23-year-old Clemson graduate got a look at the completed project before unveiling it to his mother, and he loved how everything turned out. When his mother arrived, he greeted her outside and held her hand as she closed her eyes before he led her into the fabulous upgraded space. When she opened her eyes and gazed around the room, a huge smile spread across her face. Her son’s smile was just as broad.
He was right about the fireplace, too. It was one of the first things Deann commented on.
“I love my fireplace,” she said. “I love it.”
She walked around her renovated home with wide eyes, taking in all the beautiful changes. She was also excited to see that her microwave, which formerly took up counter space, was now built into one of the cabinets.
“I never thought it would be like this,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Watson enjoyed the challenge of leading this project, but the best moment came when he saw the joy the gift brought his mom.
“I could just see it in her eyes,” Watson said. “She was very moved. Everything that she saw, she loved it. Being a son and being able to take care of your momma and help her out felt good.”
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Opinion: The Search for Immortality
By Bill Kahn
The concept of living forever has been with us throughout history, Mayans and Egyptians are just a few. While our physical bodies may not last, maybe our essence, our mind, might in some other form than within our body.
There are four hurdles, which must be conquered before that can happen: understanding how the brain works; simulation of the brain’s functions; a compact container to hold it; and finally, be able to transfer the mind or brain information to the container. Each one a monumental task.
There is research in some of these areas. Rather than reaching for that final goal today, science is concentrating on fixing problems of our living body. Sooner or later, we will reach the practical limits of fixes, and in so doing our efforts will blend into how our mind — us — can live forever.
On the way to that goal, our brain may get help, according to Alice Parker, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. She is emulating pieces of the brain, such as synthetic vision and hearing systems. These will interface with a real brain and may be available soon. It may go further and become synthetic parts of the brain’s cortex within decades.
Professor Henry Markham, director of the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland, has already simulated parts of the neocortex, which evolved rapidly in mammals to cope with the demands of parenthood and social situations. The team created a 3D simulation of around 10,000 brain cells. These mimicked the behavior of a rat’s neocortex using an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. With today’s technology, if the team could construct a synthetic human brain, even crudely, it would take 100 billion artificial neurons and a very large room to hold the computers. When might this happen? Maybe in this century, but certainly in the next.
The real problem is to develop artificial neurons to learn by experience and adapt to changes in their environment the way neurons do. Another characteristic of learning is to grow new neurons and synapses. Together these are called “brain plasticity.” Our brains can grow new neurons and the synapses between them in an hour, a remarkable biological feat difficult to emulate from an engineering perspective. Professor Parker stated this would require a major leap in technology, like the leap from cathode-ray tubes to transistors. Another mountain to climb will require the synthetic brain be able to self-assemble and reshape itself.
There is one other small problem: acquiring the mind’s information.
Dr. Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist at the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, maps slivers of a mouse’s brain. Hayworth believes mapping the complex connections of all neurons in a brain holds the key. This area encodes all the information that makes us who we are.
Assuming at some point, we can build a human-size electronic brain, where do we put it? Conventional thinking is in a humanoid or robot. Building an “upgraded us” will require it has extreme mental and physical abilities; creativeness and self-awareness; acute sensory perception in vision, smell, touch; and analysis far beyond anything we can imagine.
Impossible? Science fiction yesterday is reality today. Somewhere in the future the capability may be able to perform tasks with the mind itself. Heck, we may already be there; my wife just thinks of things for me to do, and I do it! Today, we still must physically perform functions using muscle power for at least the near future.
There are several companies and universities working this problem, one, at Columbia University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. It has created a synthetic soft “muscle” that is capable of lifting more than 1,000 times its own weight. These and related areas could spawn a new generation of wearable electronics, and medical implants that would last a long time without being repaired or replaced.
There are many challenges that must be solved on our way to immortality. We are probably decades or even centuries away from that goal. However, one can never tell, doors open that we didn’t know were there, and new avenues appear. Will you and I be the recipients of immortality? No, we were born too early!
ABOUT THE WRITER
Bill Kahn of Maitland, Fla., has lectured on automation and electronic communications at hundreds of academic and other venues. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
AP Exclusive: US Nobelist was told of gene-edited babies
By CANDICE CHOI and MARILYNN MARCHIONE
Tuesday, January 29
Long before the claim of the world’s first gene-edited babies became public, Chinese researcher He Jiankui shared the news with a U.S. Nobel laureate who objected to the experiment yet remained an adviser to He’s biotech company.
The revelation that another prominent scientist knew of the work, which was widely condemned when it was revealed, comes as scientists debate whether and how to alert troubling research, and the need for clearer guidelines.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press under a public records request show that Nobel Prize winner Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts learned about the pregnancy last April from He in a message titled “Success!”
“I’m glad for you, but I’d rather not be kept in the loop on this,” Mello replied. “You are risking the health of the child you are editing … I just don’t see why you are doing this. I wish your patient the best of luck for a healthy pregnancy.”
Mello stayed on as a scientific adviser for He’s Direct Genomics company for eight more months, until December, just after news of the births became public and drew international scorn. The Chinese scientist’s gene-editing work was not a company experiment. He tried to alter the genes of twin girls to help them resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.
Several U.S. researchers knew or strongly suspected He was considering trying embryo gene editing, and his disclosure to Mello in April is notable because it specified the pregnancy had been achieved, and came on the day He himself said he learned of it.
Editing embryos intended for a pregnancy is not allowed in the U.S. and many other places because of the risk of harming other genes and concerns that these DNA changes can be passed to future generations. But there’s no certain way to stop a rogue scientist from experimenting, no matter what rules are in place, because the gene-editing technology is cheap and easy to use.
It’s not clear how someone would have raised concerns about He’s project, said University of Wisconsin bioethicist Alta Charo, who was one of the leaders of the Hong Kong gene-editing conference where He gave details of the experiment. He’s work has not been published in a scientific journal.
University of Minnesota bioethicist Leigh Turner said the lack of action by scientists who learned of He’s intentions indicates a broader culture of silence. “There seems to have been multiple lost opportunities,” Turner said.
Last week, China’s state media reported that He could face consequences after investigators determined he acted alone and fabricated an ethics review by others. The Xinhua report said the twins and people involved in a second, ongoing pregnancy with a gene-edited embryo will remain under medical observation with regular visits supervised by government health departments. Efforts to reach He were unsuccessful.
Mello declined requests for an interview. In statements provided through his university, Mello said he had no idea He was “personally interested” in human gene editing or had the means to pull it off, and that their discussions were “hypothetical and broad.” Mello repeated his disapproval of He’s project and said he resigned from Direct Genomics’ scientific advisory board because he felt that a company led by He could no longer be effective.
Mello said he started on the board in October 2017, and said he didn’t accept compensation for the role. A representative for his university said faculty members are allowed to serve on scientific advisory boards. Mello is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports AP’s Health & Science Department. Mello’s work with Direct Genomics was not as an HHMI representative, according to the university and an email from an HHMI lawyer to He.
According to a statement Mello’s university provided, He approached Mello during a break at a company meeting in November 2017 to talk about the possibility of using the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR to prevent HIV infection from parent to child. The statement said Mello said he had no idea of He’s intention to try this himself.
After the meeting, emails show that Mello connected He to a colleague for advice on “pediatric HIV transmission risks for a therapy he is contemplating.”
Infectious disease expert Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga replied that she looked forward to talking. She did not respond to requests for an interview. The university released a statement saying that Luzuriaga and He had a brief phone call, and that she was not aware the advice she was providing could be for He’s work on gene-edited embryos.
In April, He emailed Mello: “Good News … the pregnancy is confirmed!” He asked Mello to keep the news confidential.
Mello, who won a Nobel in 2006 for genetics research, expressed concern about health risks.
“I think you are taking a big risk and I do not want anyone to think that I approve of what you are doing,” he wrote. “I’m sorry I cannot be more supportive of this effort, I know you mean well.”
The emails show Mello attended another Direct Genomics meeting in China in November, about a week before the Hong Kong conference where He made his claim public.
Mello’s statement said he resigned from the company’s scientific advisory board on Dec. 6.
Follow Candice Choi at candicechoi and Marilynn Marchione at MMarchioneAP
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.