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A LIFE-AND-DEATH ORDEAL BEGS THE QUESTION: WHY PLAY FOOTBALL?
A horrifying scene in Cincinnati — Damar Hamlin is in critical condition after collapsing on the field — should renew existential doubts about America’s unhealthy obsession with a violent sport
The ambulance, the weeping, the deep prayers, the CPR attempts for nine minutes, our gasps for breath, the nausea in our souls — let this FINALLY be an existential warning to football. It’s time to confront the NFL’s gluttonous, self-important, oblivious-to-reality place in life. For much too long, this sport has ignored inherent dangers and minimized brain trauma and heart disease.
Now, the league is exposed to a life-and-death ordeal after a basic tackle on a Monday night in Cincinnati. Maybe the horrifying scene will awaken a nation engrossed in a $17-billion-a-year pastime — violence, vanity, gambling — and prompt everyone involved to take a step back and look into a shattered mirror.
I wouldn’t be opposed to canceling the rest of the season, including the Super Bowl, though there are too many riches to be banked by the owners, broadcast networks and sportsbooks for that to happen. Never mind that a player remains in critical condition, rendering America numb on the second day of 2023. If that isn’t a scary wake-up call for King Football, what is?
Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old safety for the Buffalo Bills, is alive with a pulse as I publish this, thank heavens. That almost seems miraculous after Hamlin hit Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, rose to his feet as defensive players do, then collapsed suddenly in the first quarter. Accompanied by his mother, Hamlin was rushed from the stadium to University of Cincinnati Medical Center after a half-hour as jarring and unnerving as we’ll ever observe at a sports event. Players and coaches from both teams, in what was billed as a showdown between potential AFC champions, paused their football lives and reacted with raw emotion while team and independent medical personnel and local paramedics surrounded Hamlin. Not since 1971 has an NFL player died on a field during a game, when a 28-year-old receiver named Chuck Hughes caught a pass, collapsed about a minute later and was declared dead at the hospital. Cause of death: cardiac arrest. Hamlin, too, suffered cardiac arrest, the Bills said early Tuesday, and his life was saved when his heartbeat was restored on the field.
Would Hamlin survive? What happened next was a truth bomb intended for the eyes and ears of commissioner Roger Goodell, the league’s 32 owners, media executives and anyone else who makes billions from a meat-on-the-hoof industry. The Bills and Bengals had no interest in continuing the game. They returned to their locker rooms, in mutual agreement, and prayed for their comrade, a second-year player from Pittsburgh. The game, which should have been called on the spot, finally was postponed an hour and six minutes after the episode. “No one’s been through this,” analyst Troy Aikman, a Hall of Fame quarterback in his playing days, said on the ESPN broadcast.
It remains to be seen if football players of all ages, conditioned to battle through injuries of all sorts, will view the episode as a call to arms. Teens die on football fields with alarming regularity. How will a heartbreaking scare impact the sport moving forward? Hamlin, emerging as a regular in the Bills secondary, is well-regarded for giving back to his western Pennsylvania community, McKees Rocks, and started a GoFundMe account for a daycare center during the holidays. Among the warmest social-media posts from a devastated sports world was a plea from home to donate. This is a young man worthy of our rooting interest, having endured an upbringing in a crime-infested neighborhood. Three of his friends were gunned down and his father, trying to feed his family, was imprisoned for selling drugs.
“There were times where I could have steered left or steered right but my parents were always there to straighten me out and get me back on the track,” Hamlin told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle last year. “I’ve got to give out a credit to them, it really had nothing to do with me. The only thing I had to do was just listen and that’s the type of kid I was.”
When his father was locked up, Damar had to grow up fast to help his mother. “It was tough, it was a real adjustment, really had to kind of grow up and figure life out on my own for a little bit not having a father figure in my life,” Hamlin said. “The good thing is I had good goals and good morals already established in me during that period of time. He never was out of my life, but he physically wasn’t there, and that was different — it’s a different ballgame being through the phone than in person. But just me being who I was and what was already instilled in me, I stayed focused.”
Said Bills general manager Brandon Beane, who drafted Hamlin in the sixth round in 2021: “Some of the stories you hear from these guys, you’re like, ‘Man, that’s tough; what a tough hand this player, this person has been dealt.’ But what an accomplishment for Damar to avoid things. He knows people that have died or whatever, but at the end of the day, he’s about football, he’s a good person, and he’s going to be a good pro.”
Why him? Why now? One after another, NFL players were shocked and anguished, reflecting a tweet from Buffalo’s star quarterback, Josh Allen. “Please pray for our brother,” wrote Allen, who joined his teammates in waiting for hours in the locker room before heading back to Buffalo near 2 a.m. Eastern time.
After Hamlin’s collapse, we were disgusted by everything that is wrong with the NFL and its media partners. As a life hung in the balance, ESPN — also airing the game on ABC and ESPN2 — repeatedly played commercials celebrating pro football. The network was unprepared for the occurrence, which is unconscionable given the anything-is-possible nature of a savage game. But there was the so-called “Worldwide Leader In Sports,” caught napping, playing house ad after house ad for almost an hour. The commercials were about football fandom, about gambling, about merchandise, about streaming games live for a fee. There was another about why we love sports, the network’s favorite ode.
Where was the ESPN chairman, Jimmy Pitaro? Did he not have a direct line to the production truck?
Should the Disney Company savior, Bob Iger, consider firing him after such a disgrace? Is the network so wed to the league to not have a clue about perspective in an emergency? But at least the ESPN voices weren’t cavalier like Fox Sports idiot Skip Bayless, a warped man who actually tweeted, “No doubt the NFL is considering postponing the rest of this game — but how? This late in the season, a game of this magnitude is crucial to the regular-season outcome … which suddenly seems so irrelevant.” Did he ask, how? It’s people like Bayless who keep the football flame burning when smarter people stop everything and think and ask: What the hell are we doing?
When should the Bills-Bengals game be resumed or restarted? How about never? How about starting over next season? If Hamlin’s condition were to improve — a hopeful assumption, at this stage — the teams cannot make quick contingency plans and play in the days ahead. It’s not possible with Week 18 games arriving Sunday, an extremely short week exposing players to more injury risks. Anything but a cancellation is foolish. The league could declare a no-contest and, if both teams win Sunday, the 13-3 Bills would be the No. 2 AFC seed and the 12-4 Bengals the No. 3 seed. That is presuming they even want to play Sunday. Anyone who balks about a mental-health break is as big a loser as Bayless. Who really cares about when or if they play the damned game? Yes, I’d cancel the season.
We await more information Tuesday from the hospital. “Hamlin received immediate medical attention on the field by team and independent medical staff and local paramedics,” the league said in a statement. “He was then transported to a local hospital where he is in critical condition. Our thoughts are with Damar and the Buffalo Bills.”
Wrote Higgins: “I’m praying that you pull through, bro. Love.” He followed with prayer and heart emojis.
Said the NFL Players Association, in a statement: “The NFLPA and everyone in our community is praying for Damar Hamlin. We have been in touch with Bills and Bengals players, and with the NFL. The only thing that matters at this moment is Damar’s health and well-being.”
Ira Turner, Hamlin’s agent, told ESPN: “Please continue to pray for Damar and his family. … Will ask that you keep the family in your prayers.”
This isn’t the first time America sat in fear after an NFL player was injured in Cincinnati. Linebacker Ryan Shazier, an emerging great with the Pittsburgh Steelers, suffered a spinal cord injury that ended his career. Our hearts go out to Pittsburgh, which now deals with the plight of a native son, and to western New York, which has been ravaged by deadly winter storms and now prays for one of its beloved Bills.
But in the biggest sense, Damar Hamlin is the latest casualty of a sport that detractors say shouldn’t exist. The NFL was briefly imperiled at various points in the 2010s, with crises ranging from concussions to the personal conduct policy to the Colin Kaepernick protest movement. Goodell and the owners were proud to survive and thrive, with media companies throwing more than $130 billion at the league. Prosperity never lasts long.
The cries are echoing again, in NFL capitals and college towns and high-school communities. They can ask passionately, in unison: Why exactly are we playing football, again?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.