Nine minutes. That’s how long Damar Hamlin was given CPR on the field as two NFL teams, 65,000 fans, and a national television audience looked on. The Buffalo Bills safety had made what looked to be a routine tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins and, after rising to his feet, collapsed from what we are now told was cardiac arrest. As of this writing he is in critical condition after being taken from the field in an ambulance. His mother rode along with him, having attended the road game with the rest of Damar’s family.
This alone is a staggering indictment of the sport of football: the fact that even a textbook tackle could leave you intubated. But the horror turned to outrage when, after Hamlin was removed from the field, it was announced that the players—visibly traumatized by the extent of the medical intervention to stabilize Damar—would have five minutes to warm up, and then play would resume. The callousness of this league never ceases to shock. Players are treated like equipment—easily found, easily disposed of. The valorized football phrase “next man up” is really saying that when your coworker is disabled, it’s your turn in the thresher.
But the players and coaches on the Bengals and Bills had seen enough and they refused to “play.” While the league was still twiddling its thumbs, coaches were meeting, players were getting dressed, and, at their behest, the game would be postponed. It’s important to note that the league only called the game after player reps from both teams contacted the union, the NFLPA, which informed the league that the game was done. This was a workplace action. Participants exercised their collective power and demanded that their trauma, their grief, their very humanity be recognized.
Finally, 59 minutes after the fact, after the players and coaches made the decision for him, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, announced that the game would be postponed.
Let’s not mince words: Goodell should be fired immediately. That it took the players’ basically walking off the field to call the game will not soon be forgotten. It’s another chapter of his history as someone both reactive and reactionary. He doesn’t lead. He follows. He sticks his finger in the air and follows the prevailing winds no matter where they lead. He had nothing to say or do about the movement for Black lives—until the 2020 mass demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd and a player upsurge made his silence untenable. (His eventual comments occasioned eye-rolling, coming from the person who was in charge as Colin Kaepernick was “blackballed.”)
He had nothing to say or do about incidents of violence against women involving players—until the Ray Rice video was leaked and the public outcry made it a necessity. He had nothing to say—or only shameful things to say—about CTE and the persistence of traumatic brain injuries, until player activism forced a billion-dollar settlement. Now Damar Hamlin’s name can be added to the reasons Goodell is unfit for the job. The owners love him because he helps make them filthy rich. He is also, as I guarantee we will see demonstrated in the coming days, a world-class flak catcher: a human meat shield taking arrows from the press, while the owners reside in shadows, counting their fortunes.
The league is about the bottom line, which is why Goodell’s instincts told him that the show must go on. But this isn’t the Big Apple Circus. It’s a gladiatorial combat sport dependent on the Black players, Black bodies, and Black minds who make up 70 percent of the league’s players. Denying their humanity is an essential part of the NFL’s brand.
Pressuring these owners’ box ghouls to fire Goodell won’t solve these problems, but it’s still worth demanding. The players deserve more than someone who only follows the economic winds. They deserve an advocate. Ask the Bills. Ask the Bengals. Ask the family of Damar Hamlin.