By Caleb Nguyen, Jan. 24, 2023
American football’s generally violent nature can desensitize fans like me to the many injuries on the field, even those requiring an ambulance.
As I watched the Bills play the Bengals on Jan. 2, Bills safety Damar Hamlin tackled Bengals receiver Tee Higgins in what looked like a standard play. Even as Hamlin stumbled and fell back to the ground after making the tackle, I simply thought that he had suffered a concussion.
Despite needing his heart revived on the field and having his pulse restored, Hamlin has thankfully recovered and since returned home to Buffalo with the support of not just his teammates, but the league and fans across all 32 NFL teams. Just a few weeks prior, this was an unimaginable situation which the NFL had never seen before.
Hamlin’s miraculous recovery thanks to the trainers of the Bills, the University of Cincinnati’s medical team and the quick reaction of those in the stadium that night saved his life, but the NFL’s reputation is far beyond saving.
Upon hearing the broadcast booth mention that Hamlin needed CPR and later a defibrillator, I was scared listening to such a severe injury description because I simply didn’t know if I just witnessed a 24-year-old man lose his life.
That fear quickly turned to outrage when the TV broadcast mentioned that after Hamlin was carried off the field, both Buffalo and Cincinnati would only have five minutes to resume play. I asked how any players on the field would be mentally capable to continue the game.
While this was the first time I’ve seen an NFL game reverse source after their initial plans, the willingness to push through such a tragic event is unsurprising as it was the same business that forced teams to play undermanned and unprepared through 2020 while still banking $12.5 billion through a global pandemic.
Scrolling through social media, I noticed eight former NFL players died under the age of 40 in 2022. Other earlier deaths from young players linked to the degenerative brain condition of chronic traumatic encephalopathy all point to NFL’s owners and shareholders implicitly valuing their wallets more than the lives of players.
Measures such as safer helmets and stricter rules against defensive players when making tackles have been adopted in recent years due to nearly constant head injuries, but these have simply been too light.
Numerous older players speak about their struggles with painkiller addiction even after retirement, demonstrating a culture that views them as machines rather than human bodies that can be physically and mentally destroyed by the demands of their sport.
The average NFL career regardless of position only lasts for 3.3 years, but the league often forgets about a majority of these lost careers to promote actual stars that contribute to the billions in revenue that go straight to the owner’s pockets.
Owners won’t actively remember these lost careers because it’s not in their best financial interest to promote them. The star quarterbacks and pass rushers are the ones we recognize on the backs of jerseys, on the fronts of billboards and plastered over every promotional campaign to fight for their cause.
For those toiling away on the ends of the bench, fans probably can’t recognize them walking down the street. It’s these careers that are often forgotten and wasted in the name of monetary gain for the unrelenting NFL grinder.
Brain injuries and the league mention protection for players but CTE wasn’t even a passing thought for such a violent sport until neurologist Dr. Bennet Omalu looked into the death of Hall of Famer Mike Webster.
Webster suddenly passed in 2002 at age 50, and interviews before his death show clear signs of memory loss and confusion, both symptoms of CTE. Omalu posthumously diagnosed Webster with the disease and the neurologist’s fight with NFL officials on his research inspired the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
Commissioner Roger Goodell finally spoke about the disease at the owners’ meetings in 2016 and declared that further research thanks to Omalu’s initial discovery would be finally underway.
This was long overdue, and it took over a decade and a Hollywood movie just to fund such important work. And yet, the delay is unsurprising for the NFL.
Though the league eventually cancelled the Bills-Bengals game, why the broadcast crew would mention the warmup time, expecting these men who saw a man nearly die to continue playing, is absolutely shameful on the league’s part.
Just this season, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has suffered three concussions this season and was unable to play in Miami’s playoff loss to the Bills on Jan. 15. His first concussion of the season came early in the season as doctors cleared Tagovailoa despite showing lack of balance after taking a hit. balance after taking a hit.
Playing in the next Thursday night game, Tagovailoa looked less than 100% and would take another big hit, causing his head to hit off of the turf and his arms to go into a fencing position, clenching his hands together as his body locked up.
Watching this game live, I was shocked and disgusted to see the game continue given the circumstances and the ambulance care needed to carry the quarterback’s body away, but not surprised given the NFL’s track record.
On the same Cincinnati field as both Tagovailoa’s and Hamlin’s injuries, former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was left paraplegic as a result of an attempted tackle gone wrong late in 2017.
The injury forced him to retire from football entirely without playing another snap because he had to relearn how to walk. Shazier and many other players shared their thoughts with Hamlin on the night of his injury, yet unlike Hamlin, Shazier’s team had to continue their game despite his paralysis.
Why the NFL continues to undermine their players time after time confuses me. These men spend their youth, high school and college careers playing this sport that could be over in an instant, as shown by Shazier and now possibly Hamlin.
Even if these young men make an NFL roster, their reward of being a fringe player on a team is possibly getting another year or two before being forced to retire and find a new career path before the age of 30.
Many of these players come from poor families, with athletics being the only way out of a dire situation back at home and to help their loved ones have a greater quality of life. One play can change a player’s trajectory from the next NFL star to just another statistic.
I understand that the NFL, along with every other sports league, is a business which prioritizes pleasing their billionaire owners first and foremost.
Players who perform on the field are and always will be the most vital part of the NFL’s operation. These are human beings with real emotions, real families and real consequences for playing the sport like gladiators every week for fans like me.
While many say that they are willing to die for this game, I seriously doubt that anybody wished that upon Damar Hamlin earlier this month. Nobody should expect such an outcome from playing a childhood game above all things.
In light of this recent example, the league’s actions teach a valuable lesson. These are not mindless dummies who tackle.
Owners must stop treating these men like tackling dummies at training camp and start treating them like the humans they are.
The punishment of the NFL’s product on the field will never cease as long as the violent nature of the sport is what draws fans into the spectacle.
Feature image by Jackson Gray
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