The New Orleans Saints, led by reigning Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, are 6-3 coming out of their bye week. Though the Saints aren't the juggernaut they were last season, when they started 13-0, they remain a serious threat to repeat as champions in a wide-open NFL. Brees, who has won many fans for feats both on the field and for his philanthropic work in New Orleans, is also promoting a Facebook contest with Vicks to send one fan to the Super Bowl. He spoke with TIME about new NFL rules designed to prevent concussions, the upcoming labor fight that could disrupt the 2011 season (Brees is a player rep for the union) and the prospects for the Saints, who play the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday.
Last year, both your Saints and the Indianapolis Colts started the season 13-0 the Colts wound up 14-0 so it was no surprise when you met in the Super Bowl. This season, no team has emerged as the clear front-runner. What do you think is driving parity?
Everybody's good. Everybody's talented. So anybody could beat anybody because, Hey, we just had our good stuff today, we just played better than you. In some cases, we made just one more play than you did in order to win. Within the division, it doesn't matter what the others team's record is, there's a level of familiarity. You know each other's personnel, you know each other's scheme, those games are always close. That's why fans love our game, because most games are determined by one play, here or there, down to the wire, fourth quarter, overtime. That's exciting stuff.
What do you think of the NFL increasing fines and ordering suspensions for players who make blatant helmet-to-helmet hits?
Obviously, the NFL is making an emphasis on player safety. I mean, you're talking to a quarterback, who is a guy everyone's trying to protect. For me, it's all about protecting defenseless players. It's one thing if you have the ball in your hand, and have an opportunity to put your shoulder down, and protect yourself. But quarterback, and wide receiver, those are vulnerable positions. We're all starting to see more and more from retired players that these kinds of hits can cause long-term damage, brain and neck damage. All of a sudden, their arms start twitching because of muscle problems that have been created from a brain injury.
How many concussions have you had?
I've had one. I had one back in 2004.
When you see those retired players, are you concerned for your own future?
I play a position that doesn't have constant pounding, like an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman. For me, it's those big shots you take every now and then, when somebody's free to light you up, and you have to stand there with the ball and take the hit. Plenty of quarterbacks suffer concussions or knee injuries. You're planted firmly in the pocket and all of a sudden somebody comes in and rolls you up. It's unfortunately part of the game. We all understand what we signed up for, but then again, you don't want this to be a game that puts people in wheelchairs at age 40. That's not what we want, that's not what the fans want, we want to protect guys as much as possible, but we also understand that, hey, this is a rough and violent sport.
At this point, I'm not worried. Hopefully I can play many more years this is my tenth year right now. But if I ever reached a point where I was suffering some injuries or suffering some symptoms or long-term problems, I would definitely think about shutting it down pretty quick. I have a family to think about.
Some players panned the NFL's harsher penalties. Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Ulracher, for example, said the league was going to become the "National Flag Football League." Did that reaction bother you at all?
Some players, more specifically the NFL Players' Association, were disappointed that a lot of these fines were being doled out without our input. There are decisions being made by the league without consulting the players. Hey, this is a partnership here. When you talk about fining guys large amounts of money and also potentially suspending them for on-the-field hits, that's something we need to be involved in. We haven't been. If you're a safety, a linebacker, a defensive end, part of your job is to hit a guy so hard that you don't want him to come back into the game, because that's going to help your team win.
Would you let your sons play football?
Yeah, absolutely, are you kidding me? It's not the first sport I'd want them to play. I'd love to get a golf club in their hand first, then if they want to play soccer, they can play soccer. I will encourage them to do probably three or four sports prior to them playing football.
Do you want them to try other sports first because of safety reasons?
No, no, no, no. They're not going to play when they're eight years old. You know, that's just personal preference. If they want to play, there will be a time. I don't want them to get burned out, that's the thing. I'm going to encourage them to play as many sports as they possibly can.
The current collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners expires in March. What do you say to fans who are worried that there won't be football next year?
I think a big thing for fans to understand is, we as players, we want to play football. And we've had a successful partnership with the NFL for a long time. The game has continued to grow, it's the most popular game in America. And we as players are being threatened with a lockout from ownership. We also understand that, on game day, there are over 100,000 workers that work the stadiums, work the concessions, work everything. So when you take away football, not only does it put players out of work, it puts 100,000 Americans out of work. It takes football away from fans. Football is not just football, not just a game, there's a lot more to it. We as the New Orleans Saints can certainly speak to that, being a team that has such a connection with its fans, with its city, with its community.
We've been asked by ownership to take a 18% pay cut. And we as players are sitting back like, just wondering why that is. Because here we are, having experienced the highest revenue-generating year in league history, the league is as popular as it has ever been, and yet we're being asked to take a 18% cut. I think ownership's argument is that costs are going up, we're not making as much money as we used to. Prove that. They haven't been willing to show proof, at this point.
The Saints are 6-3 coming off Super Bowl season. Do you think that's a bit of a letdown?
I wouldn't say letdown. If anything, it's harder to win when you've reached the pinnacle. You're not entitled to anything. And I feel this team has the potential to be better than last year's team. We started a little bit slower, but now its the second half of the season. So here's our opportunity. We control our destiny.
Your teammate, Reggie Bush, has been in the middle of some controversy, as the NCAA alleged he violated rules while he played at USC. He gave back the Heisman trophy he earned in 2005, and his school was put on probation. How has he handled this?
He's handled it really well. I can only imagine how tough that's been. He's had to answer all the questions, he took a preemptive step in giving back the Heisman. I don't think it has distracted him. At least it hasn't been visible.
You're one of the more socially conscious athletes out there. Are you doing anything new with your foundation?
We've got a lot going on with the foundation, and there's a lot we're going to be announcing at the end of this year that we want to fund rebuilding parks, school, playgrounds, athletic fields, child-care programs, youth programs. We are in the process of renovating a center called the Hope Lodge, which is affiliated with the American Cancer Society. The Hope Lodge houses patients with cancer, and their families, when they come into town for treatments. We're hoping to renovate that facility to give them a more comfortable time when they're here.
Just curious: do you play fantasy football?
I don't. I'd say there might be a few guys on the team who play, but for the most part, guys play Madden. We have enough football. I don't think we need to be playing fantasy. We don't have time to manage our roster.