The NFL, Data and Player Safety

This season the National Football League introduced a full season’s worth (actually, 13 weeks, with games featuring every team) of highly valuable Thursday night games for the first time, all televised by the league-owned NFL Network.  Many players have gone on record complaining about the Thursday scheduling due to injury concerns.  Bill Simmons of Grantland, the world’s most famous sports blogger, has been the most prominent among many critics of the Thursday night match-ups, profusely criticizing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for putting players’ health at risk by scheduling games on such short rest. For example, Simmons cites the case of the Baltimore Ravens, who played four games in 17 days at the start of the season and subsequently suffered a rash of injuries, including the losses of star cornerback Lardarius Webb and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis for the season (although Lewis may well return ahead of schedule). The Thursday night games have also been very sloppy, presumably due to a lack of both practice and recovery time, and last night’s match-up was no exception.

During his wide-ranging news conference earlier this week, Goodell claimed that ongoing efforts will continue to make the game safer.  Injuries have been a major focus of late, particularly as they relate to concussions and brain trauma.  But Goodell also asserted that there was no data to support the idea that the short weeks cause more or more serious injuries.  “We don’t have any information that indicates from our data that playing on Thursdays in any way decreases the safety of our players,” Goodell said.  “The injury rates do not indicate that at all over the years.  So I think we start with facts, and the facts are that that’s not a risk to the players.”  He may even be right.  Moreover, since the players’ union has approved the games, player complaints aren’t likely to make a difference any time soon (for at least as long as collective bargaining agreement remains in force).

There is pretty good reason to believe that the Commissioner is being more than a little hypocritical generally when it comes to player safety, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that his actions were and are entirely well-intentioned and that there really is no data supporting the idea of increased injury risk on Thursday nights.  As my masthead suggests and as I have written repeatedly (for example, here), I am committed to data-driven analysis — in investing and elsewhere.  But how should we deal with a lack of data?

As an initial matter, it is important to note that a lack of data is not the same as a lack of evidence.  There is a lot of testimonial evidence from the players — albeit anecdotal and incomplete evidence – that playing on Thursday is a serious risk.  The lack of data confirming that testimony may be because the player narrative is wrong.  But it may also be because there isn’t enough experience yet for the data to be meaningful or because the right measurements aren’t being taken (for example, the number of injuries may not go up on Thursday nights, but their severity might).  Remember, this is the first year that we have seen a full slate of Thursday night games.

The difficult question is how to select the appropriate default in the event that there isn’t any data or where the data remains inconclusive.  In most instances, it makes sense to maintain current practice if there is no data suggesting otherwise.  But when current practice is new or relatively new, it may be prudent to rely on anecdotal testimonial evidence alone if it sufficiently compelling.

That leads, obviously, to the issue of what kind of evidence is or should be “sufficiently compelling.”  In general, if the risks of proceeding are high, the threshold of evidence needed should be pretty low and vice versa.  Moreover, the types of risk are extremely important.  The NFL has a lot of money invested in Thursday Night Football, largely in the form of the NFL Network.  The financial stakes are enormous and they are known.  But the human injury risks are also huge, even though they remain — at least at present — somewhat speculative.

The appropriate conclusion, then, seems to depend upon how you measure and value the clear economic consequences of cancelling Thursday night games as compared to the serious but somewhat speculative injury risks alleged by many players.  There is no clear answer and the individual conclusions drawn will be predicated largely upon one’s values and priorities, not to mention any personal stake one might have in the outcome.  Roger Goodell works for the league and NFL owners, whose financial interests are at stake, which will obviously influence his conclusions (confirmation bias demands it).  The players face no financial risk, at least directly, but face a serious risk of injury (and thus career risk, with serious financial repercussions) every time they step on the field.  That reality will obviously influence their conclusions (confirmation bias demands it).

For me, the answer is clear (but remember that I’m biased too — one of my sons was a Division I college football player whose career was cut short by injury).  In my view, dynamic Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed said it best. “If they are really concerned about the violence and injuries . . . Why is there Thursday night football?” 

Why is there Thursday Night Football indeed?

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