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Mike Sielski: John Mara was right and Jeffrey Lurie missed the point: Flexing Thursday night NFL games is madness

PHILADELPHIA — So John Mara, the president and principal owner of the New York Giants, did something the other day that, in the world of the NFL and its warped system of priorities and values, qualified as an act of true bravery. He dared to speak his mind, and speak the truth, about a league proposal to flex games from Sundays to Thursdays: It was a cheap way to try to boost viewership for those midweek games on Amazon. It would put players at greater risk of injury. And it was, in his words, “abusive” to fans who had purchased tickets for and made plans to attend Sunday games.

The proposal didn’t pass. But the vote, according to Mara, was close, and the owners came up with a “compromise” that makes it possible for a team to play on two Thursday nights in a single season. Some compromise.

“Players don’t like playing on Thursday nights,” Mara told reporters Tuesday during the league’s owners’ meetings in Phoenix. “We get that. We’ve been doing it once a year. I think adding the second one is not going to be very popular. If they had done a poll of the 32 coaches, I think it would’ve been overwhelmingly against that, and the general managers as well. They don’t get to cast those results. …

“I just object to the entire thing. I understand TV ratings are important, and it was a challenge towards the end of the year last year, but there have got to be better solutions than this. People make plans to go to these games weeks and months in advance, and to say 15 days ahead of time, ‘Sorry, folks. That game you were planning on taking your kids to on Sunday at 1 o’clock is now going to be Thursday night.’ What are we thinking about?”

Easy. Money. Everyone is thinking about money, including the NFL Players Association, which has stayed silent on the matter, offering no public statement on a prospective change to its members’ workload that is likely to lead to more head trauma, more fractures and tears and pulls, and a lesser quality of performance. Those Thursday night games were already ragged and sloppy for the teams’ lack of rest and preparation. Now the players get to put their bodies in even more peril.

“I know the injury data has shown that playing one Thursday night game really doesn’t increase the chances of injury,” Mara said. “But now, if you’re going to get a second one, and it’s going to be late in the season, when players’ bodies are a little more beaten up than they were maybe earlier in the season, I think we need to look at that.”

Such, apparently, is the price that must be paid when the NFL is in the midst of such a crisis. Ratings for Thursday Night Football sagged slightly from 2021 to 2022, and for all the league’s overtures to London and Mexico and other areas of the globe, the rest of the world just doesn’t seem as enamored of American football as Americans are. There are only so many pumps that the owners can prime for another quick half a billion dollars, and since the league already had lengthened the regular season to 17 games, ditching a December Browns-Commanders matchup for Cowboys-Eagles or Chiefs-Bills is a solution close at hand for these struggling self-made men.

“It’s a big jump to have an NFL package on streaming,” Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie told reporters in Phoenix. “We know we’re headed toward a very digital universe. More and more people are watching games through streaming. We know that that’s where it’s all headed. So there’s an attempt at wanting to make the Thursday night package even more attractive. There are ways of doing that. We could allow teams to be on there more than once and not require every team to have to be on there, so you can create some matchups in May when you’re doing the schedule and try to have a somewhat better series of matchups for Amazon and for the ratings and for the fans.”

Lurie never mentioned the two primary objections that Mara raised: the inconvenience to fans by shifting a game from Sunday to Thursday, and the physical toll that an additional Thursday night game or games would take on the players. It also seemed not to occur to him that Thursday night flex scheduling, based on recent history, might affect and hamper the Eagles as much as it would any franchise. It’s fairly common each season to have at least one team emerge as a surprising Super Bowl contender; the Eagles were such a club in 2022. Those teams — the NFL’s best teams — would be more likely to have their seasons disrupted and, presumably, their players injured.

Seth Joyner was about as he-man-minded and marauding a football player as there was over his 13-year NFL career as a linebacker for the Eagles and three other teams. He has retained that mentality in analyzing the league for FS1, NBC Sports Philadelphia, and Jakib Sports Media. If you’ve heard his perspective, you know how old-school and primal it is: Teams should blitz more. Teams should run the ball more. Football is brutal. Embrace the brutality. Yet even he can see this proposal for what it is: a greedy grab for more revenue at the expense of the athletes’ health.

“The NFL’s about their money,” Joyner said in a phone interview. “They’re going to do what they want to do. For me, the main thing is player safety. Fans are secondary. If a fan buys a ticket, they’re going to figure out a way to get there. The fans are going to show up. The biggest issue is player safety.

“You’d be foolish if you didn’t think about it. Players in my era thought about it, but not to the level guys today do because the awareness is different — the injury prospect, life post-football. I don’t think any football player is under any illusions. You’re trading off the monetary gain of today for some physical debilitation in the future. That’s the tradeoff. That’s the nature of the game. There’s not a single player today who doesn’t consider that.”

More and more, the evidence suggests that there are precious few decision-makers around the NFL who do. John Mara is one, and he was correct in everything he said, and the shame is that his being right likely won’t matter. The owners meet again in May. It would be a shock if they didn’t pass this proposal. It would be a shock if it didn’t make everything about the sport worse for the people who watch it and the men who play it.

Philadelphia Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie told reporters in Phoenix that the NFL proposal to flex games to Thursday nights was

Philadelphia Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie told reporters in Phoenix that the NFL proposal to flex games to Thursday nights was “to try to have a somewhat better series of matchups for Amazon.” (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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