After Damar Hamlin incident, football resumes in a new world

Soon there will be football in America again. Two NFL games on Saturday and the rest of the final weekend schedule on Sunday. Some of these games are important (*not really), with 11th-hourly playoff legs. On Monday night, Georgia and TCU will play for the college football national championship, a fascinating matchup between a defending blue-blood national champion and a true party starter, so rarely seen in the world of college football. And the following weekend, the NFL playoffs begin.

So there will be football again, because football is the most powerful entertainment commodity (important words, together and separately: fun, and commodity) in America. And also because Americans do few things better in 2023 than move on and beyond things, no matter how troubling those things may be. (To use a sports column to list those troubling—and sometimes indescribable—things Americans shy away from would be disrespectful. You know what they are.) This endurance is unsettling and at the same time understandable—one can only carry so much anxiety before shedding a few pounds and rocking forward into the day. This behavior appears to be both innate and recently refined, a survival instinct of a very modern variety.

Continuing with football consumption at this particular moment doesn’t require forgetting what happened last Monday night in Cincinnati — the serious accident involving Bills running back Damar Hamlin and the events and scenes that followed, all of which were extremely disturbing. Quite the contrary: none of this should be forgotten. But they require a separation that allows the emotional attachment to football to resurface. It’s something soccer fans have been doing for a while, because immersion in soccer requires a constant acceptance (or rejection) of the dangers players expose themselves to on every play, every game. It also requires constant upgrades to the system as science learns more about the sport and the sport refines its game, changing its appearance and texture in an attempt to make it safer (though not safe, an impossible goal).

But as familiar as the images were from Monday night — the tortured faces, the prayer circle, the fans standing, uncertain, in their replica Gameday jerseys and suits — they were also palpably elevated. This was worse. We all knew it, instinctively.

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The very good news came yesterday from doctors at the University of Cincinnati, where Hamlin was treated after collapsing and being resuscitated on the field Monday night, that Hamlin had made significant gains. “The road over the last three days has been long and hard,” said Dr. William Knight. “… He made quite a remarkable improvement.” Doctors at the University of California said that when Hamlin was first able to communicate in writing, he wrote, “Did we win?” Dr. Timothy Pritts replied, “The answer is yes, Damar, you won the game of life.” Doctors also said Hamlin was “neurologically intact” and that his damaged lungs had begun to heal. They also praised the on-field work of the Bills’ medical and training staff for their performance under duress. More news came Friday morning that Hamlin’s breathing tube had been removed and that he was able to speak to his family and even his teammates via FaceTime. All in all, a series of extremely inspiring updates.

Doctors also said Hamlin’s long-term prognosis is unknown and will change over time. They said it’s too early to know if he’ll play football again, though that doesn’t seem important right now.

Football has suffered many tragedies and near-tragedies. Players are concussed and paralyzed. In 1971, long before the phrase “player safety” became part of the sports lexicon, Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died on the field. An autopsy will reveal an arterial blockage that increases the impact of a blood clot. Generations of players have suffered immensely at the end of their careers due to both the orthopedic and neurological detritus of the sport. In short, it is broadly described as the price of playing a violent game. Drilling down further, gamekeepers at all levels have made a real effort over the past decade or more to reduce risk, although that risk will never reach zero and will never come close. We all know that too.

We’re sure to learn a lot about Hamlin’s health before and after his collision with Tee Higgins in the coming weeks and months. Fans will hope to find solace in the continued positive updates and perhaps his return to full health, and they should, in a big way. They’ll also use it to ease their own return to full support for a game they love.

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The bigger question here is whether soccer is simply going back to its baseline: a dangerous game with a huge fan base that reaches nearly every American demographic and generates huge revenues. Indeed, our national pastime. Whether the end of this incident is a giant sigh of relief, or if something changes. Pause. Not something in the game itself, because at this stage there is very little left to change. The rules have been changed to their breaking point; football is a rough game. (I’m going to write something here that I’ve written before: Every fan needs to watch even one NFL snap or big-time college game up close to appreciate the level of size, speed, power and commitment to every single hit. It’s stunning and your high school football career doesn’t allow you to appreciate it. It’s a whole different ecosystem).

No that something, but something else: A new level of appreciation for what we witness while sitting on our couch (or in the press box).

A story: On November 3, 2007, I was covering the United States Olympic Marathon Trials, which were held in New York City’s Central Park. The trials were won by Ryan Hall, but the race is remembered far more for the death of 28-year-old Ryan Shay, who collapsed just over five miles into the race and was pronounced dead 40 minutes later at a city hospital. An autopsy showed that Shay had a pre-existing condition – an enlarged heart with fibrosis (scarring); Shay knew this and had lived with it.

But what I remember most was reporting a story a few days later in which I spoke with several other runners who knew Shay and ran the race. In addition to their shock and sadness, which were very real, they openly questioned how Shay’s death could work its way into their psyches. Distance running is more complicated than the general population understands, but at its core is the belief that no matter the pain, one cannot die, that pain is just pain. Ryan Shay has died. Yes, he had these problems in the beginning. But after his death, his peers found themselves questioning this fundamental trust in their own bodies. I haven’t looked at distance running with the same mind since.

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I thought about that when I heard former Steelers linebacker Ryan Clark’s remarkable answers on ESPN later Monday night. “The next time we get upset with our favorite fantasy player, we need to remember that these men put their lives on the line to live their dream, and tonight Damar Hamlin’s dream turned into a nightmare not only for him, but for his family and his entire team,” Clark said.

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith spoke to This Thursday: “… This is a business that is run by people, breathing people. And they are sons of men, their husbands, their fathers.”

And as Clarke also told us on Monday night: “Tonight we have to see a side of football that is extremely ugly. A side of football that no one ever wants to see or never wants to admit exists.

That side of football will live on, just as long-distance runners in the 15 years since Ryan Shea’s death have continued to push their own limits. But one small request: some appreciation. Often over the years when I’ve written about player safety, concussions, rule changes, I’ve been grilled by readers who argue that players are well compensated to accept the risks inherent in playing a dangerous game. And you know what? True. But perhaps a little appreciation is in order of the gravity of that risk, game by game, day by day, minute by minute. These are superhuman athletes, but also just people. Today, they understand better than ever that they are also the entertainment and the commodity that powers the football machine.

So maybe a little drop of empathy in return for all those hours of joy. Not only when a player is in the hospital, but also when he is not.

Tim Leyden is a writer for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.


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