Much like death and taxes, injuries in the game of football are inevitable. Many athletes who play football have had their lives changed forever due to the lingering injuries they suffer on the gridiron. And everyone who plays today understands the risk of playing America’s most popular sport.
However, even for football standards, the injuries suffered by NFL players in the first three weeks of the 2020 season are unprecedented. According to Sportrac, there are 212 players on injured reserve — an average of more than six players per team.
The Denver Broncos— who are about to play on Thursday Night Football, which normally causes fatigue-based injuries for empty television ratings — have 11 players on injured reserve. The Broncos are paying those players more than $53 million to stand on the sideline as they prepare to play a second game in four days.
The strain on these players to play one game a week is already arduous, but being forced to play two games in rapid succession so the league can make a little extra money is disingenuous to the people in the league who matter most — the players and fans.
"Thursday Night Football is just another example of the NFL's hypocrisy,” San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said in a 2016 article in the Players Tribune.“The league will continue a practice that diminishes the on-field product and endangers its players, but as long as the dollars keep rolling in, it couldn't care less."
Along with atrocious scheduling, the COVID-19 protocols the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to before the season began were extremely restrictive, and have also played a factor in this influx of injuries.
The NFL, which was the only of the four major leagues that wasn’t in-season when the pandemic hit, waited and waited until its hand was forced in late July to come up with something to keep players safe, yet unrestricted. This freedom caused the COVID-19 case numbers in the NFL to jump to more than 50 players prior to the season.
In hindsight, these teams should have been put into bubbles for training camp to mitigate the risk of contracting the coronavirus while allowing true football activities to take place. However, the NFL and NFLPA were adamantly opposed to using bubble settings like most American sports leagues.
Instead, the league took a drastic half-measure: limiting fully-padded, full contact practices during the summer and cutting all of the preseason from the schedule.
These preseason games aren’t entertaining or profitable, but that’s not their purpose. Preseason games and scrimmages help prepare players for real games by simulating the contact and punishment of actual football. In training cam, full contact is avoided because it is teammates who are going against one another.
These protocols have cost players dearly since their bodies weren't prepared for the punishment they were about to take. Along with that, young players who need to learn how to tackle and block at the professional level without injuring themselves haven’t had the opportunity to do so in a controlled environment.
Now, the NFL and its players are reaping what they sewed while the injury bug strikes harder than it has ever before. The worst part is that the NFL has already made plans to add two postseason games and another full week of regular season games for the 2021 season while cutting the preseason down to three games. Along with this, the NFL will continue to have games on Thursday nights through at least 2022.
It's clear the NFL is currently overworking its players, and the overall product the league is producing is suffering because of it. The NFL can’t do anything about the current season, but if it wants to remain the top league, it will have to take a good hard look at whether it can keep up the charade of caring for players or actually take action moving forward.