We’re now more than a week removed from the traumatic events of Week 17’s Monday Night Football game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
In the first quarter of that game, Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin collided with Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins on a tackle attempt. But when Hamlin tried getting back to his feet, he quickly fell back to the ground. The following few minutes were some of the most harrowing I’ve seen on live television, as trainers used CPR and an AED for several minutes to resuscitate Hamlin and shock his heart back into a normal rhythm.
With a week of perspective on the event, I have gained a new appreciation for the will of the human spirit, the strength of community and the empathy of the general football fan. But I’d be lying if I said my concerns for the future of the sport far outweigh any benefits that came from this event.
Shortly after last Monday’s events, floods of donations poured into a GoFundMe page set up by Hamlin during his time in college at the University of Pittsburgh. The toy drive fundraiser initially had a goal of just $2,500, but at the time of publication, over $8.5 million has been donated, with most of that money coming in the past week from current and former football players, as well as many other business leaders throughout the country. The NFL also made the right call by fully guaranteeing Hamlin’s current four-year contract, something that is not normally a guarantee when a player suffers a catastrophic injury.
The show of goodwill has coupled perfectly with Hamlin’s recovery. On Tuesday last week, we weren’t sure if Hamlin would make it out of the situation alive. In the days since, he has made remarkable improvements. He FaceTimed his teammates ahead of their Week 18 game against New England to wish them good luck. On Monday, he was released from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and transferred to a hospital in Buffalo, where he’s expected to go home any day now.
Despite all the good that the Damar Hamlin situation has brought out of the football community, it also shows that this sport has dangers that far outweigh the benefits.
Hamlin had no pre-existing condition that caused him to go into cardiac arrest. That happened because he happened to be hit in the exact right place at the exact right time, stopping his heart right there on the spot. These type of extreme injuries have occurred in lower levels of the sport, and in other sports that include high-velocity projectiles like lacrosse, baseball and softball, but never at the NFL level.
The threat of something like this happening again is entirely possibly, however statistically improbable. If I was in the shoes of these players, it would be hard for me to justify continuing to play this season, as the trauma and fear created by the event will undoubtedly hang over the rest of the season.
The past several months have offered a microscope into how the NFL deals with serious injuries, namely concussions. The issue wound up in the spotlight yet again this season after the debacle with Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has suffered three concussions since Sep. 25, including one against Cincinnati on Sep. 29 that could have been entirely avoided.
Tagovailoa’s experience this season has caused the NFL to adjust its concussion protocols. But things still fall through the cracks. A few weeks ago, New England receiver DeVante Parker suffered a concussion that initially went unnoticed by the team’s spotters. Before the next play started, fellow receiver Nelson Agholor held up by play by jumping up and down and waving to officials. Thankfully, play was stopped and Parker was attended to before the snap.
While we tend to sweep the short-term effects of concussions under the rug, the long-term problems brought on by these traumatic head injuries is too big to avoid. Every year, it seems the death of a former pro player reveals a brain rattled by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition linked to repeated blows to the head. CTE has shown up in autopsies of several former players, including Phillip Adams — the former player who shot six people to death in South Carolina in 2021 — and Aaron Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence for murder before hanging himself in his prison cell in 2017.
The consequences of head injuries is enough for me to already rule out allowing any future kids I might have to play the sport. I imagine that sentiment is shared by more and more parents or soon-to-be parents now.
Will begin to see the effects of this movement over the coming decades. It won’t be a shock to see football participation numbers drop even more than they have over the next few years.
The NFL has been a commercial and ratings powerhouse for decades now, but that reign could come to an end as more and more people wake up to the realities of the league and the danger its players put themselves in.
It’s going to be hard to be a consumer of this type of violence.
We’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring it, but something just feels different now.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.