Damar Hamlin Incident is Frightening Reminder of Football’s Violence, Consequences

I love football. During the past year, especially, perhaps because I was able to watch without thinking about what I might have to write, I really enjoyed college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays. (The success of Michigan and the Detroit Lions probably didn’t hurt either.)

But there have been plenty of times over the past 15 years or so when I’ve wondered if I should watch football, if I should support it with my fandom, viewership, and work. The sport is so incredibly violent, taking such a toll on the physical and mental conditions of the men who play it. Players are left with broken-down bodies and diminished mental capacity due to head trauma.

It was impossible not to think about that Monday night as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field and required CPR before being taken off the field in an ambulance. Hamlin appeared to be hit hard in the chest while tackling Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, though his head and neck could also have been affected by the impact. The Bills later confirmed in a statement that Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and is currently hospitalized in critical condition.

What was especially troubling is that there was apparently consideration toward resuming the game after players and coaches nearly saw someone die on the field. Reportedly, the NFL wanted to give players a five-minute break to collect themselves and then start up again. The league denies this, but it sure looked like that was the intention until Bengals coach Zac Taylor and Bills coach Sean McDermott spoke up.

Yes, from a football standpoint, a game between two of the top three teams in the NFL’s American Football Conference had a significant impact on playoff standings and seeding. But this is about human life. This is about treating players as people with feelings toward a colleague fighting for his life. Imagine seeing a co-worker suffer cardiac arrest and require resuscitation, and then being told to get back to work.

The NFL says it cares about player safety. That can’t be credible if a player nearly dies, is taken off the field to a hospital, and then everyone else involved is made to proceed as if nothing frightening happened because the money-making machine needs to start chugging again.

Hopefully, the NFL was more compassionate than that. But the league took one hour to decide whether or not to continue playing. Maybe executives wanted to learn Hamlin’s condition first. Maybe they wanted to hear from as many players, coaches, and officials as possible. But considering the football implications — standings, travel, scheduling, etc. — seems woefully secondary to human concerns. Thankfully, players and coaches stood up for a fallen colleague and for themselves.

I understand those who feel like they can’t watch football anymore. The violence and callousness are difficult to support. Maybe it says something about me that I’m still willing — so willing — to enjoy football, to endorse players putting themselves in jeopardy, and to support an enterprise sacrificing well-being for money.

For now, I take some solace that the right decision was made Monday night, even if it wasn’t reached as quickly as most would’ve liked. I’m gratified that compassion was shown and the right concerns were expressed during a difficult TV broadcast. And I’m all too aware that football is a game, trivial alongside very human considerations. I’ll keep watching, but the questions of whether or not I should have gotten even louder.

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