As Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin lies in a Cincinnati hospital bed in critical condition, many of us — I know I did — have asked ourselves why we are attracted to a sport that is so dangerous to those who play it.
It doesn’t speak well of us fans, of course, that the country’s most popular sport by far is one defined, in large part, by its violent collisions. Or, even worse, that the game is so popular, in large part, because of those violent collisions.
It’s not coincidental that the NFL identifies so closely with the military, in which people are willing to risk their lives for their country. In football, players risk their health — and sometimes their lives — for fame, for money and for glory while we, from the safety of the stands or, more often, from our living rooms, root them on.
Some will certainly wonder if the game — in which head injuries are endemic and too often, years later, eventually fatal — has finally reached an inflection point, even though Hamlin’s injury in Monday Night Football’s game between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals wasn’t to the head at all. It was, we’re told, more likely a freakish hit to the chest causing cardiac arrest — a hit that had to come at exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong moment to disrupt the heart’s contractions.
And this collision, in any case, was just a routine hit, the kind of tackle we see dozens of times in every game and never give another thought. It wasn’t a dirty play. It was a routine play. No one had any idea of the severity of the injury until we saw the medical staff respond with such urgency after Hamlin got up from making his tackle and then collapsed. Meanwhile players from both teams were seen crying, hugging, praying. Yes, this was something different.
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Players are used to injuries, for themselves and for their teammates. Studies have shown that there are three times as many injuries in a pro football game than in soccer, hockey, baseball and basketball games combined. Few of these NFL players, though, had ever seen a player receiving CPR on what we like to call the field of play. I know I never had.
So sure, I’d like to think that we’ve at least moved closer to an inflection point, but I sincerely doubt it. I know that fans and non-fans alike are rooting for Hamlin, who’s only 24 years old, to make a full recovery. Nobody roots for players to be injured. That’s not the attraction. It’s something more elemental, something about warriors and gladiators. It’s no wonder that a player like Mark Schlereth, the former Denver Broncos lineman who had 29 surgeries in his career, can be legendary for his willingness to deal with the pain.
If we’d reached an inflection point, it wouldn’t have taken the NFL an hour to postpone the game. Of course, football games don’t get postponed for injury — or there wouldn’t be any completed games.
On the other hand, although the commissioner waited so long, it was clear to anyone watching — and millions were, in fact, tuned in to the game between two powerhouses — that the players themselves had already determined what would happen next.
They would not and they should not, and even more to the point, they could not continue to play.
In 2013, the Washington Post conducted a survey of 500 former professional football players. The great majority said that, once they retire, they go on to live a life with the reminder, to paraphrase Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” of every blow that laid them down.
In that same 2013 survey, 90% of the players said they would still play football again, but fewer than half of them would want their sons to play the game. I would hazard a guess that given how much more we know about football and brain injury a decade later, a much larger percentage would hope their sons tried a safer sport.
It took the NFL years to finally admit to the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Now the degenerative disease has been identified in more than 320 former players. And the saddest part of that number is that the condition can’t be identified until a person has died, meaning many more are suffering from it. According to one study, 24 of the 320 identified players died in their 20s or 30s.
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And, of course, the dangers start quite early. One study found that more than 500,000 high school players had been injured in the years 2014 and 2015. In another year, football injuries for players under 18 accounted for 920,000 emergency room visits. And according to a 2015 article, 70% of those playing football were under 14.
In boxing, CTE used to be known as being punch drunk. Professional boxing, although not as popular as it was — I grew up watching “Friday Night at the Fights” — is still popular enough. Calls for banning it, despite the injuries and deaths, are routinely ignored. And even more popular now is mixed martial arts, which has even more injuries than boxing, although the injuries are generally not as serious.
As some of you know, I used to be a sports columnist in my youth, and I wrote many columns about the dangers of professional football and the NFL’s reluctance to face up to that fact. And I asked why fans, and also the players, didn’t insist on a safer game. And yet I continued to watch.
There have been steps, of course, in recent times. There are finally concussion protocols, although it’s not clear they’re always followed. Helmets are safer. Helmet-to-helmet contact, in many instances, is illegal. Quarterbacks are better protected. But as many pointed out Monday night, you can make a game like football safer, but you can never make it safe.
The conundrum, as we know too well, is that it wouldn’t be football if it were.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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