It feels great to see the surprisingly rapid recovery of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin. It feels great to see him moved from a Cincinnati hospital so he can return to Buffalo. It feels great to hear about him Zooming with his teammates, flexing his muscles from a hospital bed, and cheering them on. It feels great to see fans support a charity that Hamlin started in college and that provides toys to at risk kids who were harmed by the pandemic. All of this feels great—but Hamlin almost dying on national television is not a feel-good story.
As much as the NFL is trying to spin this as a gauzy narrative of resilience, that is not what we have before us, and it is obscene to spin it as such. We must never forget that in order to survive Hamlin needed nine minutes of CPR in public view of millions. We now know, according to the reporting of ESPN’s Don Van Natta, that the NFL did not want to cancel the game despite the sight of players on both teams praying, crying, and in a state of trauma. And that’s just the teams. In addition to the 65,000 fans in attendance, this was Monday Night Football. It was a standalone game between two first-place teams, which meant there was a massive audience watching.
As someone with a son who plays high school football, I found the spectacle terrifying. It was disturbing enough to his high school coach that he sent a lengthy, heartfelt e-mail the following morning to parents recognizing the horror of it all and ensuring them about the CPR training everyone involved with the sports program receives. The coach knows what many of us know: that there is no reason to feel good about someone almost dying and an NFL willing to throw players in the thresher and look the other way. As Van Natta reported, it took the coaches and the players to call the game, not Commissioner Roger Goodell, and that is a damning indictment of the entire episode.
In addition, accepting the media and NFL focus on Hamlin as, in the words of Goodell, an “extraordinary” situation obscures the fact that NFL players do not live as long as the rest of us. A retired player named Uche Nwaneri collapsed and died at age 38 just one week ago. The wear and tear of the sport, the fact that it has, as NFLPA executive director Demaurice Smith says often, a 100 percent injury rate means that the on-field heroes suffer when the cameras are off. It means that NFL players, as former St. Louis Cardinal linebacker Dave Meggyesy said to me years ago, go directly from being young to being old, skipping middle age completely.
It’s important to note that this all predates Covid. There are a series of influential right-wing ghouls inside and outside the sports world trying to blame the Covid vaccine for Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, despite zero evidence to support their claims. This utterly irresponsible position conveniently takes the focus away from the dangers of the sport of football and the abhorrent response by the NFL. The franchise owners of this league are a part of a coterie of billionaire backers of the Republican Party and their assorted pathologies. Blaming the vaccine shields them from criticism or at least muddles the discussion to the point that critiques of football get lost in the noise.
What happened to Hamlin should be an opportunity to speak about why in this all-too-dangerous league, players do not have guaranteed contracts. It should be an opportunity to discuss how players are often treated as expendable extensions of equipment and not as human beings. It should be an opportunity to debate the sport of football itself and whether it is safe for human beings to participate in it. These are discussions the NFL does not want us to have, because they threaten the future of the most popular league in the country, a golden goose that lays billion-dollar eggs. Instead, they want us to discuss how inspirational Damar Hamlin is for his teammates and for fans across the country. But a near-death experience should never be seen as joyous, and it is a revelation of the NFL’s nihilism that this is the product they are expectorating back at us.