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Can NFL players refuse to play on Christmas Day?

Christmas Day games were first held in 1971 in the NFL, but have met plenty of opposition and are not an annual occurrence.

Christmas Day games were first held in 1971 in the NFL, but have met plenty of opposition and are not an annual occurrence.

The not-so-old tradition of Christmas Day games is one that is growing on many fans.

A brief history of the NFL’s Christmas games

In the modern era, the NFL has added occasional Christmas Day and Christmas Eve games to the league’s schedule. In contrast to Thanksgiving Day games, however, they are not an annual fixture; indeed, since 2011 there have been just seven Christmas Day games in the NFL. It really all started in 1971, when the NFL was forced to hold two divisional playoff games on Christmas Day. It would happen again in 1989 and from that point on became an occasional occurrence as part of week 16 or 17 during the regular season. There was also a two-year stretch from 2004-2006 when the NFL staged two games on each of the respective Christmas Days.

That in turn brings us to the modern era.

In recent years, the NFL has scheduled games on Christmas Day only if the day itself falls on a day normally reserved for games, such as Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. Interestingly, if Christmas falls on a Sunday, the majority of games are moved to Saturday - Christmas Eve - with one or two showpiece clashes scheduled for Christmas Night and of course broadcast nationally. There is normally a single game slotted into the Monday night spot.


Why don’t NFL Christmas Day games occur annually?

The major complication comes with the holiday’s rotating schedule in comparison to Thanksgiving Day’s set spot in the calendar each year. Each and every season, the NFL can plan for the fourth Thursday of November, but Christmas Day doesn’t follow the same rules. Of course, the day will occasionally fall on a Sunday or Monday, but it generally does not fall on a day that aligns with the NFL’s usual slate of games. To add further weight to the situation is the fact that the league has essentially taken over the television landscape on Sundays, Monday nights, and now Thursday nights, making it all the more logical to do so.

How do people feel about NFL Christmas Day games?

It’s interesting to note that while many American football fans enjoy watching the game while gathered with Yuletide spirit, the schedule has often drawn the ire of many, as critics accused the games of wreaking havoc on Christmas dinners around the nation. Additionally, the league was also criticized by some for an apparent intrusion on a traditional religious and family holiday. Indeed, a Kansas state legislator once proposed a bill to ban the scheduling of future games on December 25.

Can players refuse to play?

While there is no definitive answer on whether or not players can opt out of the Christmas Day games, they are of course under contract. In keeping with that, players are generally only exempted from taking the field if they are injured or have otherwise invoked some special exemption. While the Christmas slate of games has at times come in for heavy criticism, players, coaches, and staff are understandably always present and ready to go come game day.

The future of NFL Christmas games

According to the NFL, a deal was agreed with its broadcast partners on March 19, 2021. The contract will run for an 11-year period between 2023 and 2033. As part of the agreement, Fox acquired the rights to air special Christmas Day games as the schedule permits. These fixtures are in addition to standard prime-time games on Christmas, such as Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football in years in which Christmas lands on those days.


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