When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during Monday night’s matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, it registered as a freak accident. None of us had seen a 24-year-old professional football player — a kid in probably the best shape of his life — absorb what looked like a standard hit to the chest, climb to his feet, then suddenly fall backward and go still. Fans watched in horror as medics rushed onto the field with a defibrillator and Hamlin’s teammates circled him in prayer. After 16 minutes of emergency care, he was carted off to an ambulance, where he waited until security guards could escort his mother to join him from the stands.
Football players are taken off the field all the time, but to see one go into cardiac arrest on live TV, then again on loop via Twitter and Instagram, was a rawer and more shocking order of spectacle. The musclebound supermen of America’s toughest sport suddenly looked as fragile as any of us. Video close-ups from the Bills and Bengals sidelines showed faces streaked with tears.
Hamlin remained in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center as of Wednesday night, suspended in an uneasy limbo that was rivaled, for almost an hour after he collapsed, by apprehension about how the NFL would respond. Those of us who’ve observed how the league handled various crises over the years braced for the worst. Between its measly two-game suspension of Ray Rice in 2014 for beating his then-fiancée and the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick in 2016, the league’s lack of scruples has been well documented. It seemed likely that gameplay would resume once Hamlin’s body left our screens, which would have had a precedent: As my colleague Will Leitch wrote on Tuesday, a 1971 matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears hardly missed a beat after Lions receiver Chuck Hughes had a heart attack on the field, was briefly revived, and then got wheeled off to the locker room to die.
But officials on Monday surprised us by postponing the game, which, if we’re being generous, reflected a sentiment articulated by analyst Booger McFarland during ESPN’s broadcast. “Nobody’s concerned about football right now,” the former defensive lineman said. “America is concerned about one thing: the health and safety of this young man.”
There was a redemptive air about this response — a sense that, after years of callous behavior and public-relations disasters, the NFL and its media partners had finally gotten it right. It fed a narrative of ascendancy, too: Following a modest dip in ratings after 2015 and another pandemic-driven downturn in 2020, pro football is back to being the hottest commodity on TV, one of the only sure bets in an otherwise crumbling media economy. “It’s a freight train going down the tracks,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told Front Office Sports in August, “just gaining speed, and gaining momentum, every single year.” It hasn’t been unusual over the past half-decade or so to hear speculation about the league’s looming demise, hastened by mounting scandals and rising awareness of football’s physical dangers. Today, ratings are booming, sports gambling has gone mainstream, and new developments in “name, image, and likeness” (or NIL) rules for college players are poised to make the game even more enticing for young athletes and investors.
But at the end of the day, the NFL — and football in general — is here to stay because it regularly proves itself impervious to the kind of stress test Hamlin’s injury represents. The reality is that what happened to the Bills safety was an extreme manifestation of a familiar pattern. If our tolerance for expedient suffering is the coin of the realm, then a 24-year-old’s heart stopping mid-game has little hope of galvanizing stakeholders in ways that dozens of brain injuries a week and a rash of chronic traumatic encephalopathy-driven suicides could not. What quality of reckoning — let alone long-term support — can we reasonably expect with regard to Hamlin, his family, and the thousands of others like them from a league that, until October 2021, was calculating its dementia-based payouts for ex-players based on the belief that Black people had lower cognitive function than white people? It is no longer up for debate that football is to blame for a range of crushing neurological ailments both glaring and latent. None of it has diminished our appetite for its savage thrills.
The typical response to any tragedy, even a rare one, includes eventually asking yourself, How can I prevent this from happening again? The NFL’s current trajectory, by contrast, suggests a trend toward cosmetic tweaks and denialism rather than prevention. Football is a blood sport, and even with Hamlin’s wheezing through a ventilator, it seems unlikely that we can hope for much to change. The league has intensified its efforts to make the game seem safer of late. The introduction of concussion protocols in 2011, designed to ease players back into gameplay after they suffer head injuries, and a 2018 update to anti-targeting rules aimed at curbing helmet-first hits, are meant to convey seriousness on this subject. But they offer cold comfort in a game in which players are constantly getting bigger, faster, and stronger. According to Vox, playing in the NFL in 1970 carried a risk of running into just one player who weighed over 300 pounds. By 2010, that figure had skyrocketed to 532. Even if these encounters aren’t regularly stopping guys’ hearts, they’re doing serious damage that the NFL has proven itself committed to lying about and minimizing.
Hamlin is playing at arguably the most safety-conscious juncture in league history, but this did not save him because football cannot be made truly safe nor do most fans really want it to be. The outcry that greeted the new rules meant to reduce helmet-to-helmet collisions clarified that, for many spectators, making it even moderately less dangerous would make it less exciting. We’re stuck with a web of incentives, including network TV’s looming reliance on the sport for its survival, that skews heavily against stopping the serious injuries football naturally entails. What’s left is a fragile hope that something this awful doesn’t happen again, and the queasy recognition that we’re not that committed to ensuring it.