© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The real risk of playing football

At this point, most of America has now heard of Damar Hamlin, the 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety who prior to Monday night was fairly anonymous outside of truly passionate NFL fans. That’s because during the first quarter of the Bills’ Monday night game against Cincinnati, Hamlin collapsed on the field after a tackle and was given CPR by medical professionals after going into cardiac arrest. Players from both teams kneeled in prayer while broadcasters shifted into unfamiliar territory and the NFL tried to make decisions about what do to next. In the end, the game was postponed as Hamlin was taken to a Cincinnati hospital, fate uncertain as it still appears to be. All the while every live program from sports to news cut away for coverage and analysis of a story for which most everyone admittedly had very little information to add. Which means that if you hadn’t heard of Damar Hamlin before, you very likely have now.

Perhaps the most obvious distinction of this moment was its inherent shock value. Sports fans are fairly accustomed to watching athletes get hurt. Usually it’s a broken this or a strained that, although sometime more egregious, including head and neck injuries. But typically those are couched in what it means athletically. In other words, will they be able to come back into the game, or are they out for the season. But this was clearly different, as it became obvious that we had moved from a question of sport to a question of life. Which became the not so subtle reminder that football is a violent game and people can in fact die in its wake – not years after retirement, but instantly.

Because media, and in particular sports media, is an enterprise built around creating vast blocks of time that must be filled with thoughts and opinions, we’ve had no shortage of hot takes around this tragedy. A good number of those tasked with this role lack some basic understanding – either they know little about this medical condition, or, for those outside of sports, they don’t really understand football and its inherent risks. We’ve seen every form of praise and critique – for the League, players, fans, you name it. If there’s some angle on what’s been right or wrong in the case of Damar Hamlin, including when or if they may finish the game, we’ve seen it.

And yet there is a great risk of making this story a larger narrative on football or the NFL. One of the storylines that’s emerged is whether this game is inherently too violent, one where we now must worry not simply about physical well-being but instead about players risking their lives. The obvious answer to this is that yes, athletes do place their lives at risk when they play football, just as they do in baseball, lacrosse, track, and other sports where contestants either push their bodies to the edge of physical condition or potentially take hits to the heart that could cause permanent damage. And for the record, that’s been the story of boxing, mixed martial arts – which should be banned by the way, auto racing, and much more. These risks are real, and Damar Hamlin’s tragic accident is another unfortunate statistic.

But football isn’t too dangerous because someone may suffer a rare cardiac arrest on the field, something admittedly none of us have seen before in the NFL. It’s too dangerous because we allow massive humans to hit each other with blunt force trauma repeatedly which causes – and we know this – long term brain injury. It’s too dangerous because athletes can’t walk after years on the gridiron, and because they have legitimate fears of spinal injury every time they play. Damar Hamlin’s case is tragic and unfair, but we shouldn’t allow it to be a red herring. The game of football hasn’t changed because of Monday night. It’s the same violent performance it’s always been, one where the worst impact won’t be felt until years later, yet we still watch. And any narrative otherwise, including a misguided if well intentioned intensive focus on far more rare risks without addressing the real risks of the game, borders on the hypocritical – something I’ll fully admit to being as a rapid college football fan who knows better.

At this point, all we can do is pray for the best for Damar Hamlin, a seemingly wonderful young man who is fighting for his life. And hope that we don’t hear more about cases like this.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content
  • It would be difficult to put 2022 in sports in context, even though that can likely be said about any calendar year. It’s perhaps best assumed that this year marked some return to normal for the sports world, with full arenas and the end of protocols for fans and athletes.
  • Sports commentator Keith Strudler weighs in on Charlie Baker's looming job change.
  • In the US, you rarely hear the term famous soccer journalist. Sports journalist, yes. Football or basketball or baseball, sure. But soccer, not really, not in the US at least. The possible exception to that is the late Grant Wahl, the most well-known soccer journalist in America who has covered the sport since the mid-90’s and chronicled its American ascent, including the growing prominence of women’s soccer and the rise of the MLS.