Courtesy: Jeff Dean/AP
The events of Monday, January 2, 2022 were unlike any other on the football calendar. It was supposed to be a grand celebration of football on the day after New Year’s. The Rose Bowl was supposed to lead into a crucial Monday Night Football game with the Buffalo Bills taking on the Cincinnati Bengals.
Instead, it saw the greatest tragedy in the sport in 50 years. Early in the game, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin made a routine tackle on Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. This tackle was no different than the one most players make every Sunday. He stood up, then fell right back down, lifeless.
Now, he’s in the hospital fighting for his life.
Not that it matters compared to the life of a human being, but the sport has entered into an existential crisis with Hamlin’s sudden collapse. Several events this past season have raised questions about how safe players really are on the field.
Granted, Hamlin’s injury was a freak accident, the kind of thing that happens every blue moon to any athlete who plays a sport. Reminders of Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount basketball star who collapsed and died on the court in similar fashion, would not be lost on the viewer.
Yet, player safety has taken a backseat to the shield’s image perception. What happened to Damar Hamlin, is, in the eyes of the NFL, just another day at the office.
Football is a fundamentally dangerous sport
It is obvious to anyone who considers the matter, but this sport is dangerous, and carries with it the risk of death. An average of 12.2 young men per year die in football-related injuries. Yet, parents still choose to let their children play this remarkably violent game.
It’s something that the viewer inherently understands, and why parents are so hesitant for their children to play it.
When it comes to the NFL, though, the matter is different. We all watch every Sunday, knowing the risks of CTE that each man on that field is waiting on to catch him later in life. Of course, this is not to harangue anyone for watching. I do it, you probably do it, everyone else does it. It isn’t the most popular sport in the country for no reason.
Even with the danger, though, we know we can’t do anything about it, and deep down, there’s a part of us that enjoys the danger. It’s the same allure that the Romans no doubt had when they watched gladiatorial games in the Coliseum. The danger is what gives the game its lifeblood, its je ne sais quoi that elevates it from simple sport to titanic battle between titanic people.
But, death? Death is something football fans rarely consider. Sure, it’s in the back of one’s mind, in the same way that crashing your car and dying is always in the back of your head while driving.
The NFL screwed up
For the NFL, though, thinking like this is a failure on their part. Because they pass the buck to players when they get later on in their lives, the idea of death as a construct never once comes into the NFL’s mind. After all, it’s been the most popular sport for 60+ years now, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.
Yet, if the NFL is going to die, last night is an example of how.
While the medical staff did everything correctly, the NFL’s decision-making afterwards did not. They wanted to start the game up again, giving each team just five minutes to warm up.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor walked over to Bills coach Sean McDermott and agreed to send both their teams back to the locker room. That eventually ended the night, and the game for the time being.
The NFL expected these players – who had just watched their teammate possibly die on the field – to play. Later on, tweets came in saying that there was no discussion at all to put the players back out there, but clock operators and PA announcers all announced the five minute warning.
While one cannot say who exactly made the call, the message was clear: get back out there and put your time in the office, no matter what.
Other incidents this season show the NFL’s disregard towards player safety. Tua Tagovailoa’s saga back in September and October showed how little the NFL cares about player safety.
He suffered a massive concussion against the Bills, but somehow managed to return against the Bengals before being carted off in that game after another hit. In response, the NFL changed their concussion protocol some, but that didn’t stop yet another concussion from flying under their radar.
Damar Hamlin deserved better
Damar Hamlin was just a football player living a dream.
That’s what everyone in the NFL that plays the game is: an individual who is very lucky to do what they do. But, sometimes we forget that these are humans who play a very violent sport. Sometimes, that leads to violent consequences.
Yet, the overseers of the NFL give the players nothing but a lack of safety. Even worse, they don’t have any malice or feeling towards it. It’s just “let’s wipe off the blood and get back out there” forever.
One thing is for sure — football will be played after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest. Whether it’ll be changed for the better is cause for less optimism.
For the NFL, it was just another day at the office.