By Amy Tennery

MIAMI (Reuters) – of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) on Thursday said player safety would have to come first amid discussions over the potential of a 17th game to the regular season.

The NFL and its players’ union are in negotiations for their collective bargaining agreement (CBA), with the deal expected to expire in March 2021 and with issues like another game added to the standard 16-game regular season on the agenda.

NFLPA vice-president Benjamin Watson, who plays tight end for the New England Patriots, acknowledged that while there were different opinions on an extended season player safety was paramount in the “violent game”.

“The reason why we play is because we love to compete. But within that, we want to be kept ,” said Watson.

“As we move forward with our CBA negotiations, the owners know and they will continue to know every time we meet with them that we will not ever sacrifice health and safety of our players.”

Serious injuries are not uncommon in the NFL, with players suffering problems such as broken bones and muscle tears as a result of the hard tackles and fast pace of the sport.

Asked about what impact a 17th regular-season game would have on player safety on Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had told reporters the league had made “over 50 rule changes to make our game safer” over the last 10 to 15 years.

The NFL also used data to shape how to improve player safety, he added.

“The data is a key component to what we want to do,” said Goodell. “We don’t look at it just as do we have a 17th game. We look at the entire season, the offseason, obviously camp, how we prepare our players to get ready for the season, how we practice during the season.”

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, a member of the NFLPA executive committee, told reporters on Wednesday the league had been hypocritical in proposing the additional game.

“The league kind of pretends that they’re interested in (player safety and longevity), pretends that they care about it, makes all these rules, fines all these players, but then still proposes players play an extra game,” said Sherman.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)