Jay Cutler. Sam Bradford. Jermichael Finley and Brian Cushing. Those players all suffered long-term or season-ending injuries. Maybe worst of all, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne went down with an ACL tear after playing 189 straight games, the most among active players.
That list doesn’t represent the stars lost throughout the season. Those injuries all occurred within hours Sunday. Thursday, only four days later, Carolina and Tampa Bay take the field for a midweek battle.
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the NFL is considering expanding the number of Thursday night games in the future. Are these Thursday night NFL games risking the players’ health?
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy quickly denied the Journal’s report on Twitter, but it is hard to argue that Thursday games makes sense from a business standpoint. Despite criticism that the games are sloppy, an average of 8.1 million viewers have tuned in to the NFL Network each week to watch them. Thursday Night Football is the most-watched program on any cable network on that night.
In a Bleacher Report column by Dan Levy, McCarthy argued that many players have privately expressed gratitude for these midweek contests due to the non-contact practices before the games and the extra time off before the next games.
I couldn’t find any such endorsements from players made publicly. On the other hand, finding comments from players publicly criticizing Thursday football was easy.
“But there are some things that just don’t make sense to me. I mean if you’re so concerned about player safety then why do you have every team in the league playing on Thursday night when they just competed on a Sunday, knowing how difficult it is for guys to get back to being healthy after playing on Sunday?” — San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Jose Mercury News.
“Go get in a car accident and then try to play two days later. That’s how it feels.” — former Seattle fullback Michael Robinson, via the Associated Press.
“If they are really concerned about the violence and injuries and players getting hurt, answer this question for me, and I’m going to leave y’all with this: Why is there Thursday night football? We played three games in (12) days. Why is there Thursday night football?” — Houston Texans safety Ed Reed last season, via USA Today.
Players currently have no input in the schedules. Maybe the NFL Players Association could fight to eliminate Thursday games in the next collective bargaining agreement. Currently the union is collecting data to assess whether football players are more likely to get hurt playing when they haven’t had time to fully recover.
In Levy’s column, McCarthy claims that the NFL looked at injury data during its March 2013 NFL Annual Meeting. He states that there were 5.2 injuries per game on Thursdays in 2012 compared to 5.3 injuries per game on Saturdays, Sundays or Mondays. He also states that the rate of concussions was similar on Thursdays.
This data has not been published in any medical journal, and the report has not been released to the public, so it is impossible to validate. Plus, if the PBS documentary “League of Denial” has accomplished anything, it casts doubt on any injury studies performed by the NFL.
Even if McCarthy’s numbers are accurate, we will need much more data to know if there is a real difference in injury rates. It might be more important, though, to look at the effects of Thursday games in the sequence the teams must play within a short span.
For example, the Philadelphia Eagles played three games in 11 days to open the season. Baltimore played four games within 18 days last season.
In a sport as physical as football, that lack of rest has to take a toll. A study performed in professional soccer suggests that less rest between games causes more injuries. Players who play in two matches per week have injury rates over six times higher than players who only play one match per week.
Short of eliminating Thursday games, could the NFL make changes to give players more time to rest?
Moving games to Fridays or Saturdays seems unlikely because it could jeopardize the NFL’s antitrust exemption provided by The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961. That agreement effectively keeps the NFL from playing games on Fridays or Saturdays during the high school and college football seasons.
Many fans have suggested using a team’s bye week before it plays on a Thursday night. The complex schedules would make that idea difficult to implement, but it might help.
Regardless, we probably won’t have real answers about injuries in Thursday night football for years. Fears of concussions and speculation over the apparent increase in knee injuries from defenders trying to avoid hitting players’ heads are dominating the headlines on a daily basis. Fans should expect these concerns from players and doctors to continue.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to his blog at drdavidgeier.com.