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The terrifying collapse of Damar Hamlin and the daily violence of football


It was a normal tackle, a normal hit, a normal moment in a big football game – one of the most important of the season, a nationally televised Monday night game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Bills Buffalo, two of the best teams in the NFL. Then Damar Hamlin, a twenty-four-year-old Bills security guard, stood up and fell backwards, his legs limp and his feet apart, his heart stopping. The team surrounded him while medical professionals performed CPR and used a defibrillator to get his heart beating again. Players cried, knelt, held hands and prayed. Finally, about sixteen minutes after he fainted, Hamlin was taken by ambulance to hospital, where he remains in critical condition. The coaches met, gathered their players and headed to the locker room.

The philosophy of football is to play. A player breaks his leg, hobbles and the game continues. A player suffers a concussion, stumbles, and play continues. A player breaks his neck, is expelled and the game continues. Football is violent. Violence is intrinsic to sport, a characteristic of it. It’s part of the stakes, the thrill, the intensity, the draw. And yet there is a line, an almost inconceivable line, even for the men who accept the risks and the fans who celebrate them for it. On Monday evening, the line was crossed. It was clear on the faces of the players and the coaches: little thought was given to the course of the match. “Immediately, my playing cap went on,” Troy Vincent, executive vice president of NFL football operations and a former cornerback, told reporters after the game. “How do you get back into the game after seeing such a traumatic event happen in front of you in real time? »

This question, of course, begs another: how do you already resume the game after seeing such a traumatic event? The thing that matters most right now is Hamlin’s life. Next is the mental and emotional health of those who care for him and those who saw him fall – a circle now so big his fundraiser for a Pittsburgh-area toy drive has garnered more than three million dollars overnight, from more than a hundred thousand donors. And yet, the games will continue.

About a decade ago, the NFL came under intense scrutiny due to the devastating effects of traumatic brain injury, and there seemed to be a sea change in the way football was viewed. Youth participation has plummeted. There were front-page newspaper stories, lawsuits, congressional investigations, a Will Smith movie. There have also been domestic violence scandals, tales of painkiller addiction, social justice controversies, and yet the sport’s popularity has hardly waned.

On the contrary, football has become a more valuable television property. This season, the NFL’s Week 1 games have averaged more than eighteen million viewers. A Thanksgiving game attracted forty-two million viewers. The Super Bowl may exceed one hundred million in the United States. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” averaged 19.3 million viewers in 2021, nearly double the average of the top non-sports program, “NCIS.” why television networks and tech streaming companies are paying the league a total of one hundred and thirteen billion dollars over the next ten years to broadcast it.

Over the past decade, the NFL has worked to make the game safer. There are new rules, new techniques, new equipment. Some of the publicity surrounding the effort is surely intended to appease nervous fans, who might find the calculation of watching basketball or football, with their relative safety, less morally burdensome. But much of it is surely sincere. No one in the league ever wants to see something like what happened to Hamlin on Monday night.

It is possible that football will change. It’s already arrived. At the turn of the 20th century, players died on the football field with surprising frequency. When a Union College player died after being kicked in the head while trying to tackle a New York University player, there was a movement to ban the sport. President Teddy Roosevelt was among those who pushed to save football by changing it. Among the innovations intended to make the game less vicious was the forward pass.

But it seems unlikely that we’ll see that kind of drastic change right now. Flag football is becoming increasingly popular, and the NFL is one of them. (The Pro Bowl will feature flag football.) Whether fans and players are willing to admit it, part of football’s appeal remains rooted in its hazards – the hectic action, the collision of impressive skill and the brute force, the suspense that comes with every click. Hamlin’s cardiac arrest showed us again what we should have always seen, how real these risks really are. After all, what he experienced wasn’t something outside the bounds of the game. He was doing what he had done countless times, and what we’ve seen countless times too – hoping, on some level, that nothing would go wrong, but knowing, on some level, that it was possible. ♦




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