Is Thursday Night Football putting NFL players at risk for injury?
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As Questions Arise About Player Safety, It’s Time for Thursday Night Football to Go

Thursday Night Football debuted in 2006 with an eight-game schedule. The NFL addition brought more football into the lives of ravenous football fans. The Thursday night games left fans aching for football only two days a week in-between games, a huge change from the prior six-day ache between Monday Night Football and the all day Sunday action. What the NFL started as an eight-game schedule has now nearly doubled its reach, growing to fifteen regular season Thursday evening games. 

The question I wish the league would have more fervently asked themselves before adding additional games to the schedule, is not if they could do it, but should they do it. Since its inception, players and coaches have expressed displeasure in the addition of Thursday Night Football. Thursday games drastically shorten the recovery length for players, while the NFL continues to parrot the safety of the additional game. Call me cynical, but I believe the NFL would go to extreme lengths to try and prove to fans the safety of adding a game to an already physically brutal schedule. 

The league, time and time again, claims to hold the players' health and wellbeing in the highest regard. But can we trust the NFL to do the right thing when they've repeatedly shown they care most about padding their pocket books? We don't have to look far for an example, the Tua Tagovailoa storyline is freshly planted in football fans minds. You're dealing with greedy front offices, players willing to play no matter the cost, on top of an additional midweek game; it's no wonder we're seeing potential career-ending injuries. 

Greed, Money, Power, Excess

Kansas City Chiefs Owner Clark Hunt, Former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and Los Angeles Chargers Owner Dean Spanos on the field before the game at Arrowhead Stadium

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The toxicity of Thursday Night Football starts with the NFL's desire to sign record-breaking network contracts — and the numbers talk. Take a look at some of the numbers tied to NFL Thursday Night Football on Prime. Let's start with the number three, as in three full days of rest — not that they're resting all three days, there's practice and travel baked in there. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. That's how many days a NFL athlete has between their Sunday spotlight and Thursday evening action. Moving on to one, as in the $1 billion/year contract the NFL signed with Amazon. Which brings us to the number 113, as in the $113 billion the NFL renegotiated with networks.

According to Fox Business, "Amazon's $13.2 billion agreement with the league is a part of what will be $113 billion coming to the NFL under the new rights agreements negotiated in March. That is an increase of 80% over the current deals." 

Why do these numbers matter? I'm glad you asked. The NFL is padding its $113 billion dollar pockets with Thursday Night Football's exclusive deal with Amazon. Without the controversial Thursday night action, the NFL's new rights agreements would still be a staggering, can't-wrap-your-head-around-it, $102 billion-ish gain. It sure seems like greed, power, excess and outrageous NFL front office salaries/bonuses are more important than protecting the athletes, without whom, Roger Goddell and the league would be nothing. 

NFL Former Players and Coaches Opinions on TNF

Former NFL cornerback and Thursday Night Football analyst Richard Sherman takes part in a segment prior to a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns

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Goddell knows there's no Thursday night action without the 53 men suited up, as the league is only as popular and electric as the men who play in it. Now you may be thinking, 'Professional Athletes are paid the big bucks to play football. They don't care about how many games they play, as long as they're getting paid.' I can understand the thought process, but there are receipts showing otherwise. 

One of the loudest critics against Thursday night football is former NFL cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman is now, wait for it, a commentator for Thursday's NFL on Prime. But, the vocal athlete continues to speak out against the potentially dangerous schedule. 

In 2016 Sherman contributed an op-ed to The Players' Tribune entitled 'Why I Hate Thursday Night Football' where he called the midweek game a "poopfest" and went on to break down what a week would be like for players with a TNF game and without one. I'll give you the obvious cliff notes — players who play Sunday and then again on Thursday have no real time to recoup from being banged up during Sunday's games. 

The Super Bowl champ went on to write, "I guess this is what happens when you have people in suits who have never played the game at this level dictating the schedule. I'd like to put Roger Goodell in pads for a late game on a Sunday, in December, in Green Bay, on the frozen tundra — then see what time he gets to the office on Monday morning, knowing that he would have to suit up again on Thursday...Then maybe he'd understand...."

Now I know some of you are going to say, 'They know what they're signing up for' and you're right, they do — but professional players are also human beings and deserve a league willing to actively and aggressively place their safety above their thirst for money. After all, the league isn't exactly shy for cash. 

Players aren't the only ones in the league unhappy about Thursday games. Back in 2013, Bleacher Report shared a quote from former NFL head coach and analyst Brian Bullock. 

"[It's] brutal. In a league that is so myopic on the health of the players, to even play Thursday night games is contrary to that, in my opinion. To ask a team to come back on a short week I think is a competitive disadvantage. I'm not a big fan."

Former NFL quarterback Drew Brees is on record with CBS Sports in 2017 dragging Thursday Night Football. "It's 100 percent a product of playing on Thursday night. Do you understand what guys' bodies go through in a game? And then to have to turn around four days later and to play?" the Super Bowl champ said. "Look at the injury studies: They're off the charts. They're off the charts. So is this smart as it pertains to guys' health and safety? No, absolutely not."

Fans Aren't Unanimous About TNF Either

A closeup view of a Thursday Night Football microphone prior to a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns

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Despite some of the player's criticism, Thursday Night Football continues to pull impressive viewership numbers. According to Nielsen, TNF on Prime averages 11.7 million viewers. Front Office Sports reports that "during its first two TNF streams this season, Amazon averaged 13.6 million viewers and 15.3 million, respectively." 

Obviously fans are tuning into TNF on Prime. The question I'd like to pose is — would fans miss it if it was gone? Surely many NFL fans would miss the Thursday match-ups, but thanks to social media, we know there are many who would love to see it go. 

A quick search of "Thursday Night Football Safety" in the Twitter search bar yielded an endless scroll of opinions from the average fan, journalist, player and even doctors. I thought I might have an unpopular opinion about Thursday Night Football, but researching for this piece showed me I'm not alone in my feelings regarding the unnecessary hypocrisy of the leagues insistence for more games. The average fan has been tweeting, TikToking, and water cooler venting about this Thursday game for years. 

Is There Concrete Proof TNF Causes More Injuries?

Anthony Walker Jr. #5 of the Cleveland Browns is injured on a play during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers

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Ok, so we've established that the NFL is making lavish stacks on stacks of money from Thursday evenings, players and coaches feel the stresses a drastically shortened recovery period yields, and an overwhelming number of fans think the NFL should ditch the added action in an effort to better protect the players. This leads us to an obligatory question. Has the addition of Thursday Night Football actually caused an uptick of injuries to players? 

This is a complex and nuanced question to answer. The NFL would like you to believe there is no proof that the added game is any more detrimental or dangerous to the athletes than the sport already is. There have been studies conducted, some by the NFL, that present data supporting their claim that Thursday games don't add any additional risk. 

The problem, is current NFL injury reports aren't the best tool to help determine how Thursday night games are contributing to the players health. To begin with the leagues injury report policy isn't some iron clad science based system. In fact the NFL's injury report policy flat out states, "The club is not entitled to unilaterally determine which of the player's reportable injuries might preclude his participation or affect his performance on game day."

There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen tending-to, navigating, reporting a player's injury, and ultimately determining if that reported injury should keep a player from participating in their upcoming game. But, you can't compare injury reports when they aren't required to report the same day. That's a grey area in all the studies regarding the safety of Thursday's athletes. 

A better way would be to compare what all teams' injury reports would look like if they were on a Thursday game schedule and then again at the same time after play — across the board. My guess is there would be a lot more teams with players listed as questionable, doubtful, or out if they were all required to report injuries on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday instead of Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Players Will Play, No Matter The Cost

inebacker Emmanuel Acho #51 of the Philadelphia Eagles catches a pass while warming up before a game against the Oakland Raiders

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If the studies can't indisputably prove any dramatic upswing in injuries, then TNF must be safe for players. After all, they'd tell their teams if they were injured or suffering, right? Not necessarily. The players want to play, the franchises behind them want them to play, the shield undoubtedly wants them to play. I would argue we have to take these decisions out of players hands, because they will almost always put their bodies on the line, regardless of the consequences. We're asking the people directly affected by not playing to be part of the decision making regarding their eligibility to play — that's a recipe for disaster. 

After the devastating concussion Tua suffered during Thursday Night Football against the Bengals, the TNF on Prime panel had a lot to say about the potentially avoidable head injury. The analysts, mostly former NFL players, were sharing their thoughts, theories and insight. One story stood out to me. 

Former Rams Offensive lineman and current TNF analyst, Andrew Whitworth shared a story on air about a game against the Eagles when he lied his way through concussion protocol so he could return to the game — which he did. Luckily a fellow teammate noticed Whitworth was not himself and proceeded to tell the coach he needed to pull him — thankfully the tackle was removed from the game. 

Whitworth's willingness to share this with viewers Thursday is yet another example of why the league must put safety protocols and player protection before their bottom line. Players will recklessly put their lives on the line without someone to stop them. Former NFL running back LeSean McCoy shared a similar sentiment on Speak with Emmanuel Echo when asked at what cost he would be willing to go back into a game after an injury, and he answered, "At all costs. At all costs."

If TNF Isn't Safe, Then Who Is Protecting Players?

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith addresses the media on February 09, 2022 at the NFL Network's Champions Field at the NFL Media Building

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The current system in the NFL leaves an immeasurable crack for player's safety to fall through. We're unwillingly laying all our faith and the athlete's safety at the feet of some idealistic belief that all people involved will simply do the right thing. Sadly, it's not that simple. It's not enough to add additional games and just have faith that all the players, coaches, trainers and doctors involved will do what's right, especially in the shadow of the shield. 

The league could attempt to further protect players by placing bye weeks before Thursday Night Football match-ups. Yes, this would make the schedule a wee more challenging to draw up, but shouldn't we at least try. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And I'd go so far as to say the NFL is insane if it thinks it can continue to schedule teams 3 days off between games and their acquired Sunday injuries whilst expecting no blow back from the fans or players.

 If the players aren't protecting themselves because they want to play, and the coaches and teams aren't protecting players because they have W's to secure and championships to chase, and the league isn't protecting players because they want more money in their pockets from network deals, advertisements, and big drawing games...who is actually protecting the players?

Fans can and should continue to pressure the NFL,  journalists can and should continue to investigate what's happening behind closed doors, and little 'ole freelance writers can and should continue to drum up conversations about how we can move towards a safer game. It will take all of us to move the needle of change — and it's worth it.

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