Can American Football Ever Be Made Safe and Do We Care?

Ideas and Issues Sports Workers


Mexico City. Being out of the country, doesn’t mean not being able to watch football. In Mexico, there are channels broadcasting the sport in Spanish. Heck, the National Football League plays games in Mexico annually, just as it does in England and even Germany now. There’s no question that football continues to be popular in the United States and increasingly elsewhere. It’s a fast action, highly skilled, and wildly competitive sport.

It’s also a sport that continues to be seriously dangerous, despite its claims to the contrary. My son was streaming Monday Night Football on his computer joining millions of others and a packed stadium crowd in Cincinnati where the Bengals were playing the Buffalo Bills in a contest with playoff consequences between two of the best teams in the league. Suddenly, he yelled to me from the other room that a player had been hit, and it looked like they were administering CPR on the field. The player was Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old safety in his 2nd year with the Bills. As the Times reports,

About nine minutes into the game on Monday night, Hamlin tackled Bengals receiver Tee Higgins after a 13-yard catch. Higgins rammed into Hamlin at full speed, appearing to hit him in the head and chest area. Hamlin quickly stood up, took two steps and collapsed backward, and his body went limp. Medical personnel administered CPR and attended to him for 10 minutes.

He suffered cardiac arrest. An ambulance took him to a hospital, joined by his parents, who came down from the stands. Players crowded around from both teams with some of this huge, young men in tears. The Buffalo team and coaches knelt in prayer on the field. Players from both teams went to the locker room with the game suspended and later postponed. Hamlin remains in critical condition and hangs between life and death, making the game tragic, rather than significant or exciting.

Sadly, his was just the latest and worst injury this season in the NFL. Concussions continue to be routine and the league continues to count on player’s reactions, rather than medical advice as part of the protocol to return them to the field. Even in this terrible game, Hamlin’s injury at 9-minutes was the second one that stopped the game after another player had also gone down with a head injury.

Is there anyway football can be made safe? Do we even care?

I say this having played – and watched – football all my life and having been pushed out of the sport as a high school senior after absorbing an injury to my left knee that has stayed with me for life. Then my team was one of those classic losers that could hardly win a game all season, especially since we were overmatched by the few opponents that would play an integrated team in New Orleans in 1965. The year after I graduated a young man from my high school died, likely from heat exhaustion, in the summer pre-season practices.

For what? How can we justify this?

Even as I say this, I have to also concede that my son and I had both shortly before separately watched the highlights of the thrilling Cotton Bowl game that the hometown, Cinderella team from Tulane University had miraculously and thrillingly won in an upset against the legendary Los Angeles powerhouse, the University of Southern California. Only a week before the sports pages had been filled with the drama and excitement of the college playoff games won by Texas Christian University and the University of Georgia in wild fashion. Likewise, we had cheered the New Orleans Saints upset of the Philadelphia Eagles in a consolation upset for their largely disappointing season.

Will Hamlin’s injury finally force reform? As players continue to be bigger, stronger, and faster, and the money made from the game, both professional and so-called amateur at the college level, gets richer and richer, will the powers that be finally spend the money on equipment and training and make the rules changes that might take the horrific injuries out of the game.

Is it still a sport, if players die or suffer permanent and debilitating injuries on the field? Is flag football the future?

I hate to be cynical, but my bet is that we will be inundated with promises of reform, even while the game goes on, just as before, while the music keeps playing, and stretchers keep carrying players off the field. Some wonder how the ancient Romans could crowd the Coliseum to watch gladiators fight and die, even as we have to admit, we are no different and seemingly no better. Prayer is not going to fix what’s wrong with football.