When I watch football, I expect violence. It is a game in which grown men train their bodies to smash into each other for a living. Sitting down on a Sunday afternoon to watch the majority of NFL teams test their mettle against each other, one can expect to see at least one young man fall down and have trouble getting back up or even be carried off the field in a stretcher. For regular football watchers, this is a sad but necessary feature of an exciting game with explosive plays and powerful athletes.
On Monday, Jan. 2, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin tackled Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, who appeared to lower his helmet and strike Hamlin in the chest with the helmet’s crown in a routine play. Hamlin gathered himself, stood up and took two steps back before buckling at the knee and falling backward without protecting himself. Immediately, some of the dozens of medical staff present at every NFL game rushed to administer CPR and oxygen. Players formed a wall around Hamlin to protect his privacy. Paramedics loaded him into an ambulance, and his teammates could be seen openly weeping and embracing each other. ESPN reported that players were given five minutes to warm up and resume play. The league maintains that restarting the game was never ordered, though. Coaches insisted on stopping the game, and eventually met with officials. Both teams returned to their locker rooms. The game was first suspended, then postponed and finally canceled altogether.
It was later found that Hamlin suffered a “one-in-a-million” cardiac event that usually occurs when athletes are struck in the chest with a projectile within a 30-millisecond window. By Saturday, Jan. 7, Hamlin was reported to have significantly improved; he was taken off oxygen and spoke to his teammates via video call. On Wednesday, Jan. 11, Hamlin was officially discharged from the hospital and cleared to continue rehabilitation at his home.
The last time an NFL player died on the field was over 50 years ago, when wide receiver Chuck Hughes of my beloved Detroit Lions collapsed on the field and began convulsing. He was rushed to the hospital but pronounced dead upon arrival. That game simply continued, and the Chicago Bears beat the Lions at home before players on either team were even informed that their fellow teammate had died. It was later learned that Hughes had undiagnosed coronary artery disease, and Henry Ford Hospital settled a medical malpractice suit after treating him for an injury earlier in the season.
The modern NFL seems saintly in comparison. From my dad’s perspective, who is in his fifties and so started following the NFL in the 1970s and 1980s, the way that teams and the league treat injuries has completely shifted. However, the NFL made headlines earlier this season after another scary incident in which Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa received multiple hard hits to the head in two games over four days and ended up lying on the field exhibiting a fencing response, indicative of traumatic brain injury. Tagovailoa eventually entered concussion protocol but has struggled with concussions for the rest of the season; a potential hundred million-plus dollar contract extension over the summer seems less and less likely. Moreover, the concussion protocol that Tagovailoa debatably should have entered earlier was only established in 2011. Despite criticism, the league has at least improved its safety protocols and procedures from the more warlike origins of the sport. There has also been a shift in officiating, with referees aggressively discouraging hard hits on quarterbacks and defenseless or blindsided players with harsh penalties.
While the actual game of football has been largely unchanged since 1906, American society has changed a lot. We are less comfortable accepting the consequences of a game that kills young people: four high school players died in 2021 of traumatic brain injury. According to Forbes Magazine, youth participation in football declined 33% from its peak in 2008 to 2020 — and high school participation is falling quickly behind. Parents are less and less willing to allow their young boys to play football and are more and more likely to push them toward less violent sports like basketball, baseball and soccer.
At my house, it was never a question. I simply was not allowed to play football or hockey. I never showed much interest, but it was clear that my mother would shut it down immediately if I had. However, growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan Wolverines, football was a big deal. I watched passively but never paid much attention until the past couple of years, when I started to watch games more often and followed the NCAA and NFL more closely. Since I was almost an adult by the time I became invested in the sport, it was easy for me to see it for what it is: gamified assault. Watching college football, there’s always a slight tension: this season, which of these kids my age will be carted off the field and stripped of the opportunity to provide for their families and gain immense fame? Football injuries are serious and can affect not only future playing and earnings potential but overall quality of life: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition thought to cause dementia, mood instability and cognitive impairment, has been found in nearly every NFL player studied. College players are heavily incentivized to take these risks even if professional success seems unlikely, as full-ride scholarships for athletics are often their most direct path to an otherwise inaccessible and expensive university education.
Despite the obvious fact that the game is violent and causes serious injury and death to young men, I still watch. And seeing Damar Hamlin collapse on the field probably will not stop me. I am in too deep. Football is the primary way I relate to older men in my family, and when my team does well, I cannot help but feel good. I rationalize to myself that one person tuning in once a week is inconsequential in comparison to the corporate and cultural forces that keep football entrenched in our society. But what does it say about our culture — and me as a person — that we can watch what happened that Monday and tune in again, knowing that the same risk is being taken each kickoff?
“Please be ok. Please,” Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt tweeted on the night of the game. He emphasized that players’ lives are far more important than any game of football. This is what gives me hope. There has truly been a shift in how the league, but particularly the players, treat the dangers of football, as we saw in Week 14 when Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor practically jumped out of his pads to stop a play and get his teammate into concussion protocol. Football will never be gentle; it will never even be safe. If we are to entertain football as a society — and, for now, I think, I will — the best we can do is be honest. It is a dangerous game. We love it, but we must respect it.