As we enter into the period known as the winter blahs, with the holidays rapidly fading in our memories, millions of pro football fans will settle in front of their TVs to observe the last weekend of the NFL season. A few contests will have important playoff implications, but the rest will be mostly meaningless except for determining a team’s draft position for the purpose of selecting among the stalwart collegians (some of whom will actually graduate but many will have merely used up their eligibility) who they hope will lead them to the apotheosis of the sport: a Super Bowl championship. In these games, most fans will, without irony, root for their team to lose, thereby improving its draft position.
But even the most die-hard fans had to be shaken to the core by the sight of 24 year old Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills collapsing to the turf after a routine tackle in a nationally televised game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Hamlin apparently went into cardiac arrest and is still in critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital.
While we heard the usual “thoughts and prayers” for Hamlin, this shocking event has forced the NFL to confront (excuse the expression) head-on the fact that America’s favorite sport is built upon and sold to the masses primarily for its inherent violence. We are all aware, as we turn on our televisions each week (and often, on multiple nights thanks to the billions in network money), that the violence is a good part of why we watch. But the pact that we have made to accept the imminent possibility of serious injury every time a player steps onto the field is mitigated by the fact that the most serious consequences of playing the game typically manifest years after their careers are over and we are no longer watching them, including the almost inevitable CTE, loss of cognitive functions and, in many cases, early deaths.
But despite the rapidly decreasing numbers of participation at early ages, with many parents steering their kids to other sports with less physical contact, I can assure you that the game will go on. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will inevitably announce that the league will donate many millions in the name of Hamlin to prevent heart disease and the TV commentators will continue to mutter their cliched expressions when a player lies prone on the field (“nobody wants to see that happen”). But I doubt that many will turn their heads away.
Even after the Hamlin tragedy, the Monday night game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Indianapolis Colts featured two vicious hits by the Chargers’ Derwin James that sent two Colts into concussion protocol, but did not result in James’ suspension. It was all part of the game, apparently. Here was TV analyst’s Troy Aikman’s (who had more than his share of concussions as the Dallas Cowboys quarterback) commentary: “[w]e’ve watched a lot of football, I don’t know if I’ve seen a hit quite like that. That was as big of a collision as I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
Don’t worry, Troy, I am sure we will see many more soon.