Damar Would Demur: Football Will Live On
Millions of fans, myself included, were tuned into Monday Night Football on January 2, 2023, when about 10 minutes into the first quarter, a routine pass reception ended with a routine tackle. Both players quickly got to their feet. Then, shockingly, the defender, 24-year-old Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin, fell backward, hitting the ground with a thud. The remaining 21 players on the field, no doubt worrying they had just seen someone die, waved frantically to the sidelines for help. They gathered around the fallen player and in various clusters, consoling each other and praying.
Medical teams from both sides converged on Mr. Hamlin. Immediately discerning that Damar was in cardiac arrest, they administered CPR and began providing respiratory assistance. Although cardiac arrest is an extremely rare occurrence on a football field, the medical teams, well-trained and well-practiced, acted with amazing quickness and probably saved Mr. Hamlin’s life. The level one trauma teams at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center have done likewise and a week later as I write, Mr. Hamlin is awake, declared “neurologically intact, off the ventilator and Facetiming with his teammates, and making the kind of recovery-progress we all hoped an extremely well-conditioned young man might make.
The best-guess even a few days after the accident, is that a one in a billion blow to the heart area at the exact milli-second between cardiac nerve impulses, caused the heart to go still. Indeed, no one can recall it ever happening in professional football. There have been more instances in baseball and hockey over the years. Immediately the drumbeat resounded. “Football is a dangerous sport.” “It should cease to exist in its present form.” Reminders of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a long-standing but only recently acknowledged problem of football’s contribution to brain damage caused by repeated head trauma, continue to ring out. Several cases of death by heart failure in retired players not having reached middle age yet have also been reported. Descriptions of the sport as intrinsically destructive in its most fundamental form rose up as the clarion call for its elimination from the American scene emerged yet again from just under the surface. Comparisons to other beloved sports proved mostly unfavorable to football. Even hockey, perhaps overly stereotyped as a violent sport, pales in comparison. “You can play hockey with only minor (compared to football) body-smashing,” the pundits might say. Only boxing is more directly destructive as a sport; its only goal, even at the amateur level, is to directly inflict enough punishment to the body and head of an opponent to render the opponent either unconscious (knockout), nearly unconscious and disabled (technical knockout), or simply damaged (winner by points).
Is rugby, a close relative to football, similarly destructive? After all, players with less protective padding line up and in the ensuing scrum, smash into each other a great deal. An article in Pub Med reported on a comparison of the two sports at the collegiate level over three autumn seasons. Injury-rates were reported per 1000athlete-exposures (AEs). As it turns out, rugby is far more injurious with 4.9/1000 AEs in football versus 15.2/1000 AEs in rugby, including Injuries for the shoulder, wrist/hand, and lower leg and for sprains, fractures, and contusions (4 times higher in rugby). Concussion rates were 1.0/1000 AEs in football versus 2.5/1000 AEs in rugby). Even though we don’t hear about rugby as much in the U.S. as say in the U.K., should not rugby also be in the sports-elimination conversation?
The fact is that none of these sports is going to fundamentally change in the near-term. This being the case, the only thing to do until either the sports do change or more powerful protective technology emerges is to continue the drumbeat and force modification of the rules to both preserve the bodies and brains of the athletes as well as the excitement and competitiveness of the sports. These are the things everyone wants, so let’s get them.
In the fog of the first few days, we received a dose of healthcare insurance news. Apparently, NFL players are not provided coverage until they have been in the League for 3 years. They are covered for five years after they stop playing. I am concerned that Damar Hamlin lies outside the window. Given the nature of his hospitalization and recovery costs, donors to his go-fund-me account probably have a similar concern.
The “wokeness” drumbeat is also resounding. We are reminded of the heavily unbalanced prevalence of black players in football who willingly sacrifice their bodies in order to achieve their dream of playing football at a high level. Damar Hamlin is one such player. We have been asked to search our souls to determine whether each of us is complicit, not only in enjoying the sport despite its destructive aspect, but also at least indirectly fostering systemic racism. I will cop to the former and promise to do more soul-searching about the latter. It is a complicated issue. Black athletes are more like white athletes than we think. They play for the love of the game and hope they are successful enough to earn sufficient remuneration to lift themselves to the vaunted income levels popularized by the hype.
Damar Hamlin found himself in a starting role as next man up after an injury to his teammate. In recent interviews, he stated that he was ‘living the dream’ and that he was ‘cherishing every moment’. So was Hamlin’s family. At last Monday’s game, he was spotted hugging his mother just before game time. In fact, family members were permitted to ride with him in the ambulance.
If you listen to Damar’s voice when he speaks, you hear a very young man talking. He was just getting started in his professional career, not having earned a whole lot of money yet but still having started a go-fund-me account to raise a mere $2500 for Christmas presents for needy kids. Contributions topped $1 million within 24 hours of his injury. He and his family will unfortunately need a bunch of that money, but I am sure as Damar regains his senses, he will push to buy presents for the kids. If asked, I am equally sure he will demur on the question ‘should football be demolished’.
There is one thing to look forward to. This year’s Pro Bowl, football’s all-star game held a week before the Super Bowl, will for the first time eliminate tackling the ball carrier. Instead, they will play Flag Football. The goal is to stop the ball carrier by pulling a colorful flag from his flag-belt, thus stopping play. Ball-kicking, running, and pass-deflection rules are similar to regular football. There are fewer players, typically eight per team) and the field is shorter and narrower than a standard football field. Punting on fourth down is permitted, but the defense is not allowed to rush the punter, but only jump straight up to attempt to block a punt. Blocking is limited for the most part to “screen blocking”; simply put, placing your body in someone’s way but no hitting. The NFL players seem excited about the upcoming Pro Bowl. The great quarterback, Paton Manning is leading the charge, so let’s see how everyone likes it after the game concludes and if any aspect of the competition sparks ideas for fundamental change to the game of football.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent
January 10, 2023