The Great NFL Thursday Night Football Debate: Does It Result in More Injuries?

The Great NFL Thursday Night Football Debate: Does It Result in More Injuries?
(AP Photo/Josie Lepe)
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All-Pro National Football League cornerback Richard Sherman hates Thursday Night Football.

"I just don’t understand why the NFL says it’s taking a stand on player safety, then increases the risks its players face by making them play on Thursday, before their bodies are ready," he wrote in 2016.

Sherman was referring to the NFL's custom, started in 2006, to play one game per week on a Thursday night. He thinks that the mid-week game is a "poopfest" of substandard play that leads to increased injuries on account of players not having adequate time to heal after their previous games, just four days compared to the standard seven.

Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees agrees.

"Do you understand what guys' bodies go through in a game?" Brees asked reporters in 2017. "And then to have to turn around four days later and to play? Look at the injury studies: They're off the charts. They're off the charts."

Contrary to Brees' statement, there actually weren't yet any peer-reviewed studies of Thursday Night Football injury rates published in 2017, but there are now, and the results may not be to the quarterback's liking...

"A short rest period between games is not associated with increased rates of observed injuries reported in NFL game books," researchers from the University of Miami announced this May in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. "Rather, our data suggest there are significantly fewer injuries for Thursday night games compared with games played on regular rest."

The researchers tallied up injuries recorded in official NFL game books for all games played between 2013 and 2016, categorizing them by the amount of rest received prior to gameday – short (4 days), regular (6-8 days), or long (10+ days). Games played on short rest had an average of 1.26 injuries, games with regular rest had 1.53, and games with long had 1.34.

A prior study published in March 2019 which examined data from publicly announced injury reports turned up roughly the same result.

So what explains this counterintuitive finding? Shouldn't injury rates increase when the body is given less time to heal between bouts of extremely demanding physical punishment?

Well, it's possible that football players dial back the intensity on Thursday nights, something that Sherman hinted at. On the other hand, it's also worth considering that a lot of NFL injuries are more related to happenstance rather than overuse. Sometimes tackles go wrong, players trip and fall awkwardly, or an unlucky plant of the foot tears a ligament. Injuries like these are just bad luck. This sort of luck might be more likely to affect the data from Thursday night games, as the games are far fewer in number.

Regardless, the notion that Thursday Night Football is especially dangerous to players is not supported by empirical evidence.

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