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Thursday night games could become a labor sticking point

As the NFL and the NFL Players Association continue to draw battle lines for an all-out labor war that really hasn’t gotten started yet because not much negotiation has occurred, another potential sticking point is creeping onto the radar screen.

Thursday night football.

Launched in 2006 when the current broadcast deals were structured in a way that carved out a late-season package for placement on NFL Network, there has been nary a peep out of the players in four prior years regarding any actual or perceived problems with playing games on a short week -- or with the mini-bye week that comes after playing on a Thursday.

But now that the players are voicing their displeasure more loudly than ever on a wide variety of issues (due in large part to the belief that the NFL wants to take away 18 percent of their money), it should come as no surprise that players who were silent through multiple seasons of Thursday Night Football suddenly have decided they don’t like it.

“It goes back to the 18-game schedule,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis recently said, per the Baltimore Sun. “You have to ask yourself a real question when you schedule games like this: Who does it help? Because it doesn’t help the players. That turnaround is just too quick. You go from playing a physical game on Sunday and you have less than four days before you have to physically get back up again. It takes a week for guys to really heal. . . . I don’t know when they put it in but I’ve never liked it.”

So why hasn’t Lewis previously complained? The Ravens were one of the teams that played in a Thursday night game in November 2006, the first year of the current format. We recall not a single negative word from Lewis about the assignment.

But now that the players -- rightly or wrongly -- are conditioned to complain about everything, Thursday games apparently have been added to the list of gripes.

The better complaint, in our view, relates to the league’s decision to retain the games on a league-owned network that still has not achieved maximum distribution. In past discussions, multiple league sources have estimated that the NFL could earn $350 million per year or more by selling those games to the highest network bidder.

And we’ve got a feeling the NFL will want to expand the Thursday night concept in the next labor deal, possibly to a full season.

It potentially could be a $1 billion per year proposition.

So if the NFL wants the players to shrink their slice in order to help the owners grow the pie, the NFLPA should insist on the pie being maxed out via the sale of the Thursday night package.