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America’s Lamest Thanksgiving Tradition May Be Getting Hurt Playing Backyard Football

Looked at a certain way, Thanksgiving traditions are all about flirting with disaster: trying to cook a dozen or more dishes simultaneously without giving anybody food poisoning; trying to make dinnertime conversation with uncles and cousins without bringing up some simmering family drama; trying to make it through a game of backyard football without ending up in the emergency room.

About 1,000 Americans a year don’t quite manage to pull that last one off.

Thanksgiving Day is the undisputed king of the football injury. In 2014, about 550 Americans 25 and older went to the ER with injuries sustained playing football — and that was a down year. In 2013, more than 750 people ended up in the ER on Thanksgiving Day. In 2009, more than 1,400 did.

Those figures come from the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which collects data on injuries from a sample of about 100 U.S. hospitals.1 I searched for any injuries that mentioned the word “football,”2 which means my count will miss anyone too embarrassed to tell the ER doctor what happened (as well as cases where the doctor didn’t include the word in the brief description of the injury). I didn’t count anyone under 25 in order to eliminate high school or college football injuries. (Pro players presumably don’t need to go to the ER to get patched up.) In all six years for which I had data,Hadley Wickham’s “neiss” R package, which has data for 2009 to 2014. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has released 2015 data, but Wickham hasn’t yet incorporated it into his package.

">3 Thanksgiving was the biggest day of the year for football injuries — and it wasn’t even close.

OK, a confession: I am one of those statistics. Every year over Thanksgiving break, my friends and I gather on someone’s lawn or at a local ballfield to play what were once epic — and have grown steadily less epic — games of flag football. Those games have included the usual litany of bumps and bruises, a disproportionate share of them involving my brother and me — the line between “two-hand touch” and “full tackle” gets blurry among siblings. But no one ended up in the hospital until a few years back, when I grabbed my brother’s flag on the first play of the game and came up with a ring finger that seemed to point in several directions at once. After a brief discussion of whether it would fix itself, and an ill-advised effort to “pop it back in,” I headed to seek treatment.

When I got to the ER, I found that I had plenty of company. The waiting room was full of men a few years past their athletic prime who had gotten a bit overambitious on the football field and suffered the consequences: blown-out knees, sprained ankles, busted foreheads. No one on duty at the ER looked the least bit surprised. (The official diagnosis from the ER doctor was that my finger was “pretty much trashed.” My brother framed the X-ray, along with the flag I’d grabbed off him, and gave it to me for Christmas.)


Courtesy of Ben Casselman

It turns out that I was almost exactly the median case. I was 32 when I got hurt; the median age for Thanksgiving football injuries is 33, according to the NEISS data. I broke my finger, which is the most commonly injured body part (followed by, in order, shoulders, ankles and knees). And it will surprise literally no one that nearly all of these injuries — 93 percent — happen to men.

Dr. Joseph Chase, the chief of orthopedics at Falmouth Hospital on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where I was treated, wasn’t surprised by either my story or by the statistics. For many men of a certain age, that Thanksgiving football game is some of the only intense physical activity they get all year.

“A lot of times it’s people who rarely work out and then they get together and decide to have a Thanksgiving football game and their bodies are just not ready,” Chase said. That leads to lots of pulled muscles, sprained ankles and, yes, broken fingers — although he said the more serious injuries tend to come later in the day, after people “start to get some alcohol in the system.”4

The best defense against injury, Chase said, is to exercise regularly the rest of the year. But since it’s too late for that now, he recommended stretching — and knowing your limits — if you’re heading for the backyard gridiron. That’s a particular challenge for 30- and 40-somethings who still think they can behave as they did in their early 20s, Chase added.

So guys, be careful out there this Thanksgiving. Pie is easier to eat with two hands.


  1. The NEISS database assigns weights to each case in order to estimate the total number of similar cases that occurred nationwide.

  2. Or variants such as “foot ball.”

  3. I downloaded the NEISS data via Hadley Wickham’s “neiss” R package, which has data for 2009 to 2014. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has released 2015 data, but Wickham hasn’t yet incorporated it into his package.

  4. For the record, my injury came pre-beer.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.