The good news, of course, is that doctor’s have removed Buffalo Bill safety Damar Hamlin‘s breathing tube, he has communicated with his teammates via FaceTime, and though he has a long road to full recovery, he seems to be out of existential danger after suffering a cardiac arrest Monday night in Cincinnati in an important NFL game between his Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Since that frightening episode, there has been an outpouring of support and prayers for the 24-year-old football player. His Buffalo charity that delivers toys to children has seen donations soar to over $7 million with over 224,000 contributors.
But within the compassionate response, my natural cynicism also senses an underling, but unspoken, guilt about for how addicted to American football we are, including to the car-crash quality of the hits on display, and the injuries that come from them.
The irony is that the hit that seems to have caused the cardiac arrest in Damar Hamlin was not the kind usually found on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day. Instead, it was just freakish: the right force, in the right place, at the wrong time, between heartbeats, is what put young Mr. Hamlin’s life in danger after he took down Bengals’ wideout Tee Higgins.
It is also interesting, don’t you think, that until the widespread delivery of football on television, beginning with the 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, the first overtime game in NFL championship history, baseball was America’s pastime, not football.
Baseball is a pastoral game, a leisurely game with the only violence being bat against ball. Oh, occasionally, a pitcher zips one close on the chin of a batter. Or a base runner slides into second base with his spikes up. But baseball, by its nature, is not a violent game.
Football, on the other hand, serves up violent collisions on every play, with the orchestration of that violence among 22 moving pieces on offense and defense being what so attracts our attention and passion. NFL games produced 22 of the top 25 prime-time telecasts of 2022, with the college football championship (#9), one night of the Winter Olympics (#10), and the Oscars (#23), filling the other three positions.
To be shocked by Damar Hamlin’s near-death experience on the field Monday night, and now to witness the outpouring of sympathy and prayers and support for him, seems to be a way of saying “we’re sorry for loving this game as much as we do”, because it can lead to an episode like this. But, like Tom Brady, we remain addicted to it, despite the wreckage and ruin.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was the best hitter in the American League, St. Louis Cardinals star Stan Musial, the top hitter in the National League. The one thing they had in common that separated them from the rest of their MLB colleagues was they didn’t wait until spring training to prepare for the season. They worked out 12 months of the year. The rest of the league didn’t. Why? Because the money they were making did not warrant that great an attention to the game between seasons.
Nowadays, with seven-figure salaries on the line, even people that don’t make it to The Show train their asses off at facilities specifically built to get them in the nth degree of fitness. The game of football has fundamentally changed, too, and it’s the money and electronic attention that’s driven that change.
When I was a kid, only Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier of the LA Rams was over 300 pounds (136.078kg) as an NFL lineman. Today, in the NFL, the average offensive lineman is 6’5″ tall (1.95m) and weighs 312 pounds (141.521kg), while the average defensive lineman is 6’2″ inches tall (1.88m) and weighs around 300 pounds (136.078kg).
Though Damar Hamlin was just 6’0″ (1.83m) 200 pounds (90.78kg), wasn’t his injury, in part, the inevitable result of the increased size, fitness, and rewards generated by the sport? Who didn’t think somewhere in the back of their mind that some day some player would die on the field?
Damar Hamlin came way too close last Monday, and the fear and tears exhibited by the players who watched medical personnel work feverishly to revive Hamlin showed they held that view, as well. Buffalo Bill’s quarterback, Josh Allen, said “some people were permanently changed” by what they saw, as they watched medical personnel cut away Hamlin’s uniform so they could administer CPR for nine minutes.
In the early 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to save football from being outlawed after 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries came out of the 1904 season – mostly among high school players. Back then, the forward pass was illegal and with very little protective equipment, the players sustained horrific injuries in massed formation plays. Newspaper editorials called on colleges and high schools to banish the game outright. Enter the “Rough Rider.”
“I believe in rough games, and in rough, manly sports,” said Roosevelt. “I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”
But again in the 1905 college season, 19 players died. Under Roosevelts’ leadership, a new inter-collegiate conference was established, a precursor to the NCAA, which approved radical rule changes for the 1906 season. The proposed changes didn’t eliminate all the dangers, but football fatalities fell to 11 over the next two seasons while injuries declined markedly.
In our ADHD society, we move from one damaging image to another with the rapidity of 30 frames per second. In that profusion, we have become inured to things like blown out ACLs, separated shoulders, broken bones, even CTE. What’s left?
How much better can they make the equipment to withstand the current levels of contact among athletes of this fitness, often playing on fields of artificial turf, which are much better for the owner’s pocketbooks than for player’s health? Helmets no longer serve as protective devices, they’re weapons!
Unlike a century ago, there is no call to ban football. Besides, isn’t it the perfect sporting metaphor for our violent species? Violence is what it takes to survive, literally, to eat. We may have hidden that violence in abattoirs, but that doesn’t change the reality. Is it any wonder we make a game of the violence that life requires of us?
It’s why ancient cultures would offer prayers to the animals they killed for the food they provided, because they understood the paradox that required another living thing’s death for our lives to go on.
One problem athletics (T&F) has as a spectator sport is its lack of perceived violence. Yet competitors are all too aware of the savagery required to put away their opponents. But that violence is visited upon oneself as runners punish themselves in their attempt to make the other guy succumb to his/her own pain threshold first.
As Steve Prefontaine once said: “I can endure more pain than anyone you’ve met. That’s why I win, because I can endure more pain.”
But when something as sudden and shocking as Damar Hamlin’s collapse confronts us, it’s visceral, we feel the fear in our guts, as we are instinctively torn between a natural compassion for the individual, and a haunting sense of guilt for still needing that weekly dopamine hit of violence to satisfy our escapist entertainment addiction.
Best wishes, Damar! The playoffs are just two weeks away.