The nightmare scenario, for the NFL, had arrived. And the pit in America’s stomach, on the New Year holiday while the country was enjoying a half-century-old mass ritual known as Monday Night Football, felt as awful as you’d ever imagine. Worse, even.
Millions of people—including so many families, the kids taking in one last sports distraction before returning to school from winter break—were left watching Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin fighting for his life near the 50-yard line. As the ambulance carted Hamlin away in Cincinnati, we all braced for the absolute worst tragedy. Broadcasters were at times speechless, left near tears. Could this really be happening?
All that really matters, in this moment, is Hamlin’s health. He remains in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center after suffering cardiac arrest following a hit. “We want to express our sincere gratitude for the love and support shown to Damar during this challenging time,” Hamlin’s family said in a statement released on Tuesday. “We are deeply moved by the prayers, kind words, and donations from fans around the country.” The GoFundMe that Hamlin had started back in 2020, to buy toys from children in his hometown near Pittsburgh, exceeded $4 million in donations by midday Tuesday; it had raised about $3,000 going into Monday night.
America, however, is a football-crazed nation. So Hamlin’s collapse will have to force a reckoning. As we pull so hard for Hamlin’s survival, it’s also appropriate to ask ourselves: can we in good conscience keep embracing this game?
People have been wrestling with this question for more than a decade, as science has shed light on football’s health consequences. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was once an obscure entry in medical textbooks. Now, it’s the neurological disease associated with repeated blows to the head, known for afflicting more than 300 former NFL players, and perhaps hundreds more (the condition can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem). After years of resisting the notion that head trauma caused CTE, the NFL finally acknowledged the link between CTE and football in 2016.
Hamlin did not suffer a head injury—many medical experts suspect his heart stopped due to commotio cordis, an extremely rare but sometimes fatal disruption to heart rhythm resulting from to a blow to the chest. Still, his injury showed that despite the NFL’s measures to make the game “safer”—such as harsher penalties for head-to-head contact, and cutting down on contact in practices—football remains an inherently violent sport that puts players at great risk.
Up to this point, football’s brutality hasn’t dampened its standing as the nation’s most popular sport. The data couldn’t be clearer. The Denver Broncos, for example, sold for $4.65 million in 2022, the richest franchise transaction in U.S. sports history. Amazon is paying the NFL around $1 billion a year to show Thursday night football games. And according to Variety, 31 of the 35 most-watched prime-time telecasts of 2022 were NFL games, with Super Bowl LVI leading the way with some 99.7 million viewers. (Only the college football national championship game; a night of Beijing Olympics coverage on NBC immediately following the network’s Super Bowl coverage; the Oscars; and an episode of Yellowstone also ranked.)
Something about this incident, however, feels different. Pundits struggled to recall ever seeing CPR administered to an NFL player during a game. (Back in 1971, Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions suffered a heart attack on the field. He later died at the hospital. That game went on.) Injuries to the head and extremities are terrible, and have resulted in paralysis for football players. But even in the worst cases, players can usually at least give fans an assuring thumbs up as they leave the field. Hamlin could offer no such signal. On Monday Night Football, millions felt his life hanging in the balance. It was frightening and unprecedented.
“You see players on the field and they get hurt, but you don’t see players on the field going into cardiac arrest,” says NFL Hall of Famer Harry Carson, a former linebacker for the New York Giants. “It was basically an eye opener for so many parents who have children who love football. Parents might be a little bit more hesitant wanting their child to play if that’s going to happen. It’s unreal.” Carson, who sustained numerous concussions in his career, says he’s remained a “tyrant” in his family, insisting ever since his grandson was 2 years old that he never play football. Carson’s grandson is now 13. He hasn’t played, despite his family pedigree. And after seeing what happened to Hamlin, Carson sent his daughter a text message: this, he told her, is why he shouldn’t play.
Dylan Buell—Getty ImagesA vigil is displayed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for football player Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills.
The NFL’s historically problematic handling of player safety was on display Monday night as well. The league faced a torrent of social media criticism after appearing to delay the postponement of the game. ESPN announcer Joe Buck said that teams were given a “five minute window” to warmup and resume the contest after the ambulance carried Hamlin off the field and his Bills teammates knelt in prayer. Some players were sobbing. The two head coaches, Sean McDermott of the Bills and Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals, spoke to a referee. The players retreated to their locker rooms, and eventually the game was officially postponed more than an hour after Hamlin collapsed.
“It never crossed our mind to talk about warming up to resume play,” the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, said in a conference call with reporters early Tuesday morning. “That’s ridiculous. That’s insensitive. That’s not a place we should ever be in.”
The point, however, was that the NFL could have stopped all the shouting by calling the game immediately. Everyone watching, much less playing, knew that continuing with Hamlin’s condition unknown— and players openly grieving their teammate—would prove impossible. Why deliberate at all?