2017 NFL – Thursday Night Football is likely here to stay, whether players like it or not

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It’s Thursday again, which means there’s an NFL game on TV, and it’s probably one that a lot of people aren’t going to like.

Forget the fact that this week’s teams are out-of-contention messes starting backup quarterbacks whose fans are more focused on the 2018 draft than the standings. The Colts-Broncos matchup is just this week’s Thursday Night Football face — the ugly final 2017 edition of TNF — a nettle we won’t have to fuss with again until next September.

Regardless of who plays or how good they are, the teams that play Thursday night always have players who aren’t healthy enough to play or aren’t at full strength because they just played Sunday and four days isn’t enough recovery time. And it’s a certainty at this point that some player or players — most likely on the losing team — will complain after the game about what a travesty it is, how it shows that the league doesn’t care about player safety, how it’s all just a business, etc.

Fair points all. If it were all about player health and safety, there wouldn’t be Thursday night games. The NFL says the injury rates on Thursdays are in line with (or better than) those of Sunday and Monday games, but that’s a semantic argument. It doesn’t take into account those who can’t answer the bell for the game but could if they had three more days to get ready. And it doesn’t take into account the long-term toll that playing a game on a short week of preparation can have on players’ bodies. You don’t have to be a doctor, a physical therapist or a psychiatrist to figure out that it would be better for NFL players to get six days off between games than three. Especially by this point in the season, when they’re all battered and bruised from the long season anyway.

But that’s the thing, right? It isn’t all about player health and safety. There’s another consideration, and you don’t have to be an economist or an advertiser or a network TV executive to know what that is either. It’s money, of course. The reason the league plays on Thursday night is that it draws immense financial benefit from doing so — at least $500 million over the past two seasons. Not only does the league’s own TV network benefit from a subscription standpoint by televising a live event once a week, the league has in recent years managed to sell the broadcast rights to Thursday night games to NBC, CBS and Amazon, so it’s getting a double benefit for this product.

So we arrive at the heart of the matter. As a potential collective bargaining matter, Thursday Night Football is a microcosm of the tug-of-war between the concepts of (A) revenue generation and (B) player health and safety. You’re naïve if you think (A) doesn’t matter, and you’re probably overly cynical if you think (B) doesn’t. The discussion gets oversimplified when someone frames the goals as mutually exclusive. If your question is whether the players can succeed in doing away with Thursday Night Football in the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations, the answer isn’t “yes” or “no.” It’s that it depends on how important it is to them.

The comparable high-profile issue from the 2011 negotiations is, of course, the personal conduct policy. One of many things the body of players told union leadership it was interested in during those negotiations was neutral arbitration for discipline, but when it came up in negotiations, the players learned that the owners and the league office weren’t interested in offering that unless the players were willing to give significantly more on the revenue split. So when the NFL Players Association went back to its members and asked, “Is neutral arbitration worth another 2 percent or 3 percent off the revenue split?” the answer, of course, came back, “Heck no,” because for the vast majority of players the personal conduct policy will never be a problem.

The players and their union get ripped in the court of public opinion for “giving the commissioner that power” when someone such as Tom Brady or Ezekiel Elliott runs afoul of the policy, because those cases are high-profile and people like to oversimplify. The reality is that the players decided that wasn’t a hill on which they wanted to die, and they are much happier with the relaxed offseason work rules, the expansion of post-career health care and the injury guarantees in contracts they got from those negotiations.

So, fast-forward to this next round of CBA talks — the current CBA runs through the 2020 season — and project what will matter to each side. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the players want to talk about eliminating Thursday night games. And let’s further posit that the league still likes Thursday games for financial reasons — that its broadcast partners haven’t grown convinced that football is on too many nights a week and should be cut back.

Hypothetically, the owners respond, “No, those games make us all (owners and players!) too much money. If you want those gone, we will need major financial concessions.” If that happens, what do the players do? Do they say, “Yes, Thursday night games are so odious that we’re willing to give financial concessions to make them go away.” Probably not. But then a negotiation takes place. “If you want to keep Thursday games, what can we do to make them more sensitive to player health and safety? Greater reductions in practice time? A shorter regular season? An extra bye week? No expanded playoffs?”

The point is, even if everyone gets together and agrees Thursday night games are the pits, that doesn’t mean they’ll be going away anytime soon. It’s not going to be its own issue in the next round of negotiations — only one part of a big sliding scale of issues around which discussions will be had and concessions made.

And yes, after this latest Thursday night game, some player or coach is going to talk about how wrong it all is that they have to play on Thursdays. And it’ll get a big headline.

But once you hear the inevitable question that follows — “What are the chances the players can get this thing killed?” — know that no one has the answer yet, and that it will depend on what it’s worth to the players. It would probably have to be a lot.

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