It’s welcome, but odd, that Damar Hamlin’s heart stoppage has produced so much soul searching on behalf of NFL players and fans — and so much well-orchestrated concern among NFL executives.
Hamlin’s heart stopped after making a hit in a Monday night game. He plays defensive back for the Buffalo Bills and the Bills were playing the Cincinnati Bengals. These are two of the best teams in football this season. All of that led to a marquee game and a big national audience, so that amplified what happened.
But what happened might not have had anything to do with football. There have been a relative handful of these kinds of incidents in all the major sports over the last several decades. A player’s heart just stops, sometimes while sitting on the bench. It has more to do with a genetic quirk than it does with the game.
The real problem in football is head injuries. And it’s not just concussions, but the constant sub-concussive hits that a player’s head takes on play after play. That’s what the NFL doesn’t want to talk about. They have elaborate protocols when a player takes an obvious massive hit or when a concussion is diagnosed. But just watch any common three yard run up the middle and notice how many players’ heads are banging into other players’ heads or into knees or into the ground.
Heart stoppages are rare and maybe unrelated to the game anyway. Full on concussions can be managed. But the real danger in the game is in the run-of-the-mill knocks a player’s head takes in normal play.
In some respects the game has gotten safer. At the college level, the NCAA was formed because too many players were being killed on Saturday afternoons. So, Pres. Teddy Roosevelt, who loved the game, called a White House conference to save it. The eventual outcome was the NCAA, which put rules in place to end deadly strategies like the flying wedge.
Meanwhile, head injuries are nothing new, we just know more about them now thanks to research, much of which the NFL would just as soon go away. In large part, the League’s emphasis on concussions is just a strategy to district fans away from the repetitive hits that are far more dangerous to players.
But here’s the thing. Ignorance may have been bliss, but we’re not uninformed any more. As fans, we know what’s going on on every play. And yet we watch. And by watching we contribute to a billion dollar industry. There’s simply no way that a game which produces that kind of money is ever going to do anything to deal with its real problem. Because to eliminate or dramatically reduce that sub-concussive trauma would fundamentally change the game, if it could be accomplished at all.
Because of all this, for about four years I gave up watching football because I felt complicit in what was happening. I found other things to do with my time. I followed the Packers and the Badgers in the newspapers, but I didn’t miss watching the games on TV. I felt OK about that since the NFL and the NCAA don’t make any money from people reading newspaper accounts of their games.
But then last year I started watching the games again. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s because it was clear that my little personal boycott was pretty lonely. I knew nobody else in my circle of friends who wanted to do the same. Maybe I felt a little hypocritical because I usually rail against that kind of preachy virtue signaling, although I tried to avoid talking about it. I didn’t want anybody to think that I considered myself a better, more evolved human being for not watching football. But I suppose inevitably that’s how it came across.
I grew up in Milwaukee, watching the WTMJ sports report. In the off seasons, Lionel Aldridge, a star Packers lineman, would fill in on the sports desk. Everybody loved Lionel. He was a gentle giant. Then one day, a few years after he retired and joined Channel 4 full time, without explanation he slammed the family dog into the ground. His moods spiraled out of control. Channel 4 had to let him go. He ended up on the street, homeless. After some publicity about that, the station rehired him, but in his stand up reports from Bucks games he wasn’t at all the same man. He seemed hollowed out. He died young. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but based on what we know 30 years later, there’s little question that what killed Lionel Aldridge was head trauma from his football career.
That was four or five decades ago. It goes back that far. And still I’ll watch the Packers – Lions game on Sunday night. The arc of that story — an unlikely come back after being written off — is just too good to ignore. I want to see how it ends. If only there was a way to keep the arc of a great story without the carnage suffered by the men who play the game.