On Damar Hamlin, Trauma and Humanity in the NFL

| January 5th, 2023

As I sit to write this on Wednesday morning, a report has just come across MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Damar Hamlin has been moved onto his stomach in a Cincinnati hospital bed to promote blood flow out of his lungs. Hamlin is in this position, fighting for his life, ventilator snaked down his throat, because of cardiac arrest sustained while playing of a football game. The injury might have been a tragic fluke – “one in a million” a doctor friend told me – but it doesn’t happen if Hamlin is watching the game from a barstool at Applebee’s. It happened because of football, and the unpredictable violence associated with the game.

Years ago, the New York Times had a piece about the Israeli response to attacks within its borders. Less than a few hours after a bus explosion on a major thoroughfare in Tel Aviv, the explosion site was entirely cleared, and the bus route resumed. Their approach could be defined as anti-disruption; they would acknowledge the tragic nature of the event but not let it alter the life of its citizenry.

As Hamlin was being ambulanced from the field, the NFL wanted to restart the game. Joe Burrow began warming up. Stefon Diggs delivered a fiery pep talk to his teammates. Everyone involved in the game seemed ready to put the trauma behind them and resume football as usual.

And then Zac Taylor walked across the field to Sean McDermott. He said something, we don’t know what. Shortly thereafter, the teams were heading into the locker room, and soon the majority of the Bills, those not heading to the hospital, were flying home to Buffalo. Years from now, Taylor’s gesture will remembered in documentaries because in that moment, he saved football from itself; saved Roger Goodell and 32 billionaires from a masochistic public spectacle. As players cried and prayed and stared emptily into space, Taylor recognized that playing a football game in the wake of the Hamlin tragedy was not just bad optics for the league, it was absurd behavior for a collection of human beings.

And “human beings” is the key phrase. For too long, media and fans (forget the owners and league) have been nonchalant about the physical well-being of the men, human men, responsible with providing the greatest entertainment in professional sports. I was struck to see how many NFL-based podcasts simply decided to sit out the discussion Tuesday, afraid, I assume, of saying the wrong thing. Tuesday morning was the opportune time to get on the microphone and speak to the fans. Remind them that the men on their fantasy teams are, in reality, men. Remind them of the physical risk these men endure each and every Sunday.

Tua Tagovailoa has had three diagnosed concussions this season. Three. With hundreds of men and women covering this is sport, has any written a column imploring him to retire from the game? Has anyone associated with the Miami Dolphins come out and said, “Tua is done for this season, and we’ll reevaluate his status next summer after what we hope is the appropriate healing.” No. Of course not. Because the NFL is imprisoned by a “warrior mentality” that praises short-term health risk while eschewing long-term ramifications. Jim McMahon forgets where he lives when he drives to the store for bread. But he’s not on anyone’s fantasy team so it does not register anymore.

The other sports don’t have this issue. Justin Morneau missed an entire season with the Twins after sustaining a concussion. Penguins’ legend Sidney Crosby was concussed in January 2011. He didn’t return to light skating until mid-March of that year. Why do the other sports take major injuries to their athletes much more seriously? What is wrong with the culture of the NFL that the mindset not only shifts quickly to “next man up” in the locker room but also seems to incorporate “last man, fuck him?” What has shifted in the wiring of Burrow, Diggs and McDermott that they actually believed a football game should be resumed Monday night? What is fundamentally wrong with Goodell and the owners that they would make that decision?

Dave Birkett, a good friend of this site, writes about the Lions for the Detroit Free-Press. Dave decided a few years ago to refer to concussions as “brain injuries.” Why? Because concussions are brain injuries. If you injure your knee in the NFL, you are listed on the injury report with (Knee). You are not listed as being in the Ligament Protocol. Dave decided, as a journalist, to tell a vernacular truth; to use the weaponry of the writer, language, as a tool for change. Fans on Twitter gave him hell for it. Why? Because fans don’t want too much humanity in their football.

Our downplaying of concussions, and every other injury sustained in this brutal game, is what leads to a reaction like the one we saw Monday night. Over the last few weeks, I have received countless emails from Bears fans that read, essentially, “Chase Claypool HAS to get on the field.” Does he? Does any fan know what physical pain/trauma he is currently enduring? Does any fan know the potential long-term effects Claypool could deal with by returning to action too quickly? Of course not. But to a large faction of fans, these are not men. These are gladiators, sacrificing their lives in the arena for the amusement of an adoring public.

No one is to blame for the tragedy that has befallen Damar Hamlin. And the league should be praised for having the proper medical personnel at the ready in that moment. But one hopes that Hamlin’s humanity, widely reported since he left Paycor Stadium and reflected in the fan support for his charitable endeavors, reminds us that he is not alone in this league. Perhaps we should all be less concerned with our clicks, and our fantasy points, and our fandom, and more concerned with the well-being of those providing us this remarkable joy six months of every year.

Many will read this and respond, “Boo hoo hoo, they make millions to play a game.” How much money is Damar Hamlin going to make in 2023? How much money is enough for Tua to sacrifice a working brain in his forties and fifties? We all love this sport. And we need to reevaluate what form that love takes.