America loves the NFL and continues to support it even as its players, coaches and officials strive to work effectively within the new rules designed to enhance player safety.  Give credit to the NFL for seeking to improve the safety of players in an inherently dangerous sport.

Of course, for most of us the only danger football poses is the risk of a pulled muscle while reaching for the remote control to switch channels to a different game.  For the actual men who play the games for our entertainment, the new rules could lead to fewer foggy lives marked by cognitive impairment (see Favre, Brett for a current example).  That’s a good thing, so whatever one thinks about past actions (or inaction) of the NFL, it would appear that better days are ahead in terms of player health and safety.

But as soon as I write that, I think about Thursday night NFL games (each team in the NFL will play a regular season game on Thursday night this season) and I wonder:

Is it truly possible that an NFL player, no matter how gifted athletically, can shake off the physical devastation that each Sunday brings and be ready to play on Thursday after only three days rest?  How can Thursday games possibly be in the best interests of the players?

Of course, Thursday night games are not a new development (the NFL started its Thursday night package back in 2006), but given the NFL’s recent public emphasis on player safety, it is fair to ask how the NFL can continue to put tired, banged-up players on the field for these Thursday contests after only three days of rest.  In addition, it’s been reported that the NFL is considering expanding its Thursday night offerings, thus putting even more tired, banged-up players on the field in harm’s way after only three days rest.  Can Wednesday night football be far away?

In its defense, the NFL points to data that demonstrate that injury rates are virtually identical in these Thursday games compared with injury rates for the regular Sunday games.  Also, some NFL players have noted that they like the Thursday games because playing on Thursday gives the players a respite from contact drills in practice during that short week.  And, the point has been made that teams playing Thursday night benefit from added rest time as compared with their opponents in the next game.

So the NFL position must be that there are no player-safety issues involved with Thursday games, because to say otherwise would be to acknowledge that money outweighs issues related to player safety.  I hope the NFL is right in its assessment of safety issues for its players.

From a business perspective, the move to Thursday nights certainly makes sense for the NFL.  These games, while not an artistic success, have been a success in the ratings.  The fact that consumers will watch these games, whatever the level of play, demonstrates the incredible power of the NFL brand.

But just because Thursday night games make sense financially, does that make it the right thing for the NFL to do for its players?  Would it hurt the NFL to leave a few dollars on the table and not expand its already dominant brand to Thursday nights?

That last question is probably a silly one.  After all, what business would turn down an opportunity to further capitalize on its significant success in the marketplace? If the consumers weren’t interested in watching Thursday night games, perhaps the NFL would have an incentive to restrict its product to Sundays.  But as long as the public continues to support those Thursday contests by tuning in to NFL Network and attending the games, and as long as the NFL is comfortable with the rate of injuries suffered by its players in the Thursday games, then it will be full steam ahead on Thursday nights.

What do you think?  Do Thursday games represent an unnecessary accident waiting to happen, or are they a reasonable modification of the regular schedule?

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