Today marks a week since an NFL player from the Buffalo Bills, Damar Hamlin, died on the football field and was quickly brought back to life by the consummate skill and technology of a battalion of EMTs in Cincinnati. That crew was on site for just such an eventuality. Had they not been—had they been five minutes away—the result may have been much less favorable.
Yesterday was the first day since that incident when the NFL played a full slate of games. And as is typical, last night in Green Bay a large defensive player sent a forearm shiver to the head of an injured player on the ground, and the miscreant's teammate then shoved aside a trainer who was coming to lend assistance. That player was removed from the game. It was (we are all relieved!) business as usual.
One would think that given the horror of last Monday night's near-death experience, the surviving players would have learned a lesson, but there is no lesson to learn. Even yesterday, on what would become Self-Congratulatory Sunday in the NFL, while its announcers were falling all over themselves praising the life-serving accomplishmet of the previous Monday, mayhem provided the backdrop. More huge men came running at each other at frightening speeds and colliding with unimaginable force.
Safe in a hospital, Damar Hamlin continues to improve. His survival has been assured. Such cannot be said for anyone else currently on an NFL roster.
There is no lesson here. What would it be? Go easy? Don't hit so hard? Slow down? Back off? Those suggestions are antithetical to a sport that centers on speed and violence. Experts claim that a player who takes it easy is more likely to be hurt—and hurt worse—than a player going full tilt.
There is no lesson here, not when part of the game involves throwing another human being to the ground with bonus points for ensuring that he stays there.
I don't deny that football, like many other sports, comprises grace and athleticism almost beyond description. Where else can we see huge men bearing pounds of equipment run the length of the field at a sprinter's pace, or others stand implacably against those who try to knock them down but can't? There are spectacular catches and brilliant runs, strategy and deception, the predictable and the stunning. In short, football demands the best of an athlete but unfortunately threatens always to leave him with the worst.
The chance of dying in football is one in 50,000; boxing, one in 2200; hang gliding, 1 in 500. Mountain sports are more dangerous. So is cliff diving. Undoubtedly there exist more dangerous methods of competing, but aside from boxing, very few leave the lasting damage that football does. When retired linebacker Junior Seau took his own life in 2012 at the age of 43, no one was surprised to learn that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and that his final years were marked by symptomatic dementia, rage, and depression. Fellow NFL-er Vincent Jackson was 38; Paul Oliver, 29.
Some day our descendants will read about a sport called football which pitted one team against the other in a battle for turf, and the tale will include injury and illness and even death. I'm old enough to remember Darryl Stingley and Jack Tatum, Frank Gifford and Chuck Bednarik—they'll be part of that narrative of victim and conqueror. And I remember Chuck Hughes, a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions who, in 1971, collapsed and died on the field with a minute remaining in the game. His death was the result of arteriosclerosis and did not seem to result from any on-field trauma, but no squadron of EMTs rushed to his aid, and the game continued after he was wheeled away, That will be part of the history also.
But mostly we'll look upon football as an aberration, the way we look upon gladiatorial combat from millennia past. We'll wonder how we not only accepted the brutality but actually encouraged it. But that reconsideration is a long way off. Football isn't going anywhere soon. Still, more and more these past few years, I have seen players smashed and crushed in collisions that were difficult to watch, and I have said on several occasions, "this is nuts." But I didn't change the station—I remained to watch the victim arise and return for the next play.
Today some of the injured enter what is euphemistically referred to as "concussion protocol" where rattled brains are analyzed for the capabilities of returning to have them ratted further. It's the right idea, but probably doesn't go far enough.
Every sport has its heyday, and football continues to prosper. But someday, long after most of us have checked into "burial protocol," future generations will probably wonder why we sacrificed so many good men for a sport that demanded superhuman strength and skill but left its participants weak and infirm. The dexterity of the modern football player defies expectations on a continuing basis, and every game produces another play-of-the-year. Still, the price is high..
There are few sports in which participants informally assemble afterward and shake hands or hug: football is one, but it may be less an expression of camaraderie than one of unmitigated relief that they survived.