Only a Game: NFL Creep

I’m writing this on a Thursday night, just after watching what was perhaps the worst NFL game I’ve ever seen—a steaming turd of a game, played between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans. The Jaguars won, 19-13, bringing them to 3-6 for the season, while the Titans fell to 2-8. If you don’t know very much about football—and, having just watched this game, I wouldn’t begrudge you that at all—these were terrible teams, playing an unwatchable game, absent of any meaning, stakes, or entertainment value.

While this would certainly be a torturous game to watch on any day of the week, there was a certain delicious irony in it being played on a Thursday night. Thursday night games are a relatively new NFL innovation, ostensibly designed to highlight “special” matchups by placing them at a time when they won’t be competing with other games. This is, of course, total horseshit. Thursday games aren’t more entertaining than any other games. They’re generally played between division rivals, as was the case in the Jaguars-Titans atrocity I opened on, but that obviously doesn’t make a game good. In fact, Thursday NFL games are widely held to be of worse quality than Sunday games. The commonly-cited reason for this is that the players in these games, having just played four days before on Sunday, are still fatigued or nursing injuries from their last game. However, it could be, as I wrote a while back, that the narrative of Thursday night games being total crap is just a statistical aberration. Maybe we’re as likely to see boring games on Sundays, but simply pay more attention to the Thursday night snoozefests because they occur at times when there isn’t other, better football to distract us. Perhaps, because Thursday night games are the subjects of extensive marketing pushes—they generally get 30-second TV spots devoted entirely to that particular game, whereas the ads for Sunday games highlight what’s the three best games that day are expected to be—we have higher expectations and thus are more likely to excoriate the NFL when the games are boring. It’s likely a combination of all these factors.

What is inarguable about these games, though, is that they’re a particularly noticeable, pernicious example of NFL creep, a term I just made up. I’m coining this term to refer to the slow expansion of the NFL beyond its traditional temporal home of fall and winter Sundays into other times of the week and year, in much the same way “holiday creep” refers to the incessant march of the various December holidays earlier and earlier into November. NFL creep, to a certain extent, also applies to the NFL expanding its geographic reach by playing games in far-flung locations. NFL creep is the yearly increase in Thursday night games, regardless of fan and media displeasure. NFL creep is playing an ever-growing number of games (three this year) at Wembley Stadium in London, and airing those games at 9 a.m. eastern. NFL creep is planning to expand the slate of “NFL International Series” games both numerically and in terms of game locations. NFL creep is Commissioner Goodell’s push to increase the number of games teams play in a season to 18. NFL creep is the constant, unending discussion about putting a team in London, even though Los Angeles still lacks a team, and the New York area could likely support a third team.

There are cultural aspects to NFL creep, as well, particularly in the cultivation of previously dead spots in the NFL calendar into events in and of themselves. NFL creep is the development of NFL free agency (a specific time in early March when players, having fulfilled their contracts with a team, are free to sign new, hopefully-lucrative contracts with other teams) into a highly reported-on, national spectacle. NFL creep is the extensive coverage of the NFL draft (a process wherein teams select the most promising college players in reverse order of the last season’s standings—the worst team picks first, the best last) and the highly-hyped television and live spectacle on the day of the event itself. NFL creep is the unceasing clamor of reporters and analysts on NFL weekly recap shows, pregame shows, offseason rumor shows, training camp recap shows, and many, many other kinds of NFL programming.

There are a whole lot of problems with NFL creep. It hurts fans, first of all: outside of whether Thursday night or Sunday morning games are worse than those played at normal times, it’s harder for fans to watch their favorite teams when games are played at odd times. When, say, the Buffalo Bills play a “home” game in London, that’s one less opportunity for local fans to go see a game in person. On a cultural level, the constant coverage of football transactions encourages fans to see players as cheap, replaceable cogs in the machinery of their team, instead of as, you know, people . NFL creep hurts the media, too. The year-round flow of NFL commentary cheapens discourse around the sport overall and washes over the really important stories, like those about the NFL’s continuing problems with violence.

Beyond all that, though, NFL creep is an artifice built on the backs of players. Playing extra games in a season would obviously be detrimental to player safety, even if preseason games are canceled in exchange, given that starters and stars don’t tend to log a lot of snaps in the preseason. Losing those games doesn’t make up for the added danger of two extra regular-season games. When players are forced to play two games in four days, as they are in the case of Thursday night matches, they’re not given hazard pay for this extra danger—and it is an extra danger, given how brutal football already can be. When players travel to London to play, they’re made to travel many times further than they’re accustomed to, expected to play at an abnormal time, and lose out on valuable practice or recovery time in the process. This is not only unpleasant—when is an intercontinental flight not unpleasant—but it’s also dangerous due to the disruption of rhythms and the lack of practice or recovery time for players. They’re not paid extra for this, either. Meanwhile, the extra profit made from the slow expansion of the NFL, despite requiring disproportionate labor from players relative to normal games, doesn’t flow to them in fair quantities.

There are other things to do on Thursday nights. There are other things to watch in Wembley. There are other sports to follow when the NFL isn’t on TV—basketball is really cool right now, just FYI. To put it as simply and bluntly as I can: if you enjoy football, you shouldn’t like NFL creep. It makes the games worse. It cheapens the discourse around the game. Most importantly, it hurts the players, without whom the game itself is impossible.

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