Sports

The NFL Isn’t Built for This

Damar Hamlin exposes like never before that the league can’t simply create the reality it wants.

Allen covers his mouth in horror as Diggs and other players kneel and pray or walk with their hands on their heads
Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and other Buffalo Bills after Hamlin collapsed against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on Monday, in Cincinnati. Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Damar Hamlin fights for his life in a Cincinnati hospital. He is all that matters now, the focus of everyone from the football-watching public to the NFL Players Association to his family, friends, and teammates. The second-year Buffalo Bills safety took a blow around his chest and head as he tackled Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins on Monday Night Football. A second after that routine play, Hamlin collapsed. He went into cardiac arrest. Medics administered CPR and got his heartbeat back. The game didn’t resume, and late Monday, a representative said his vitals had returned to “normal” but that he was breathing through a tube. The NFL and then the Bills said Hamlin is in critical condition. The Bills flew back to Buffalo to do what everyone else is doing: waiting, thinking, crying, and praying for a 24-year-old whom friends and associates describe as one hell of a guy. Hamlin deserves to wake up and have someone explain to him that the toy drive fundraiser he leads now has more than $3 million in donations.

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It’s a crisis for the entire game. Football is a bloodsport, and enough of us are obsessed enough with it that we have made the NFL the most dominant TV show in America by miles and miles. Much of the country has ceded an entire day of the week to this league. Everyone tuning in has a surface-level understanding of the brutality. A lot of people have watched the movie or seen the reports about head and other injuries consigning players to cyclical crises after their careers. Sometimes players leave games on boards. Sometimes they’re paralyzed. It is always harrowing. But football has never held up a mirror to the rest of us, to make us think about what we’re watching, more than it did on Monday. People who have followed the league since its infancy remarked that they’d never seen anything like it.

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That the event was so shocking is a testament to how the NFL has maintained a bubble over itself. A century ago, football was gorier than it is now. On-field deaths weren’t quite frequent, but were at least sporadic. Players had worse equipment and the schemes of the day lent themselves even more than now to massed collisions. One player died on the field in 1971, a year after the formation of the modern NFL, but that has not happened a second time. Equipment advances, rule changes, and a lot of luck have prevented a repeat. The game isn’t safe, and the action in NFL games has shattered both bones and lives. But those catastrophes have never unfolded all at once, on a field during a game, and that has helped the league carry on. Five years ago, also on a Monday night in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier made a hit and suffered a spinal contusion that doctors feared would leave him paralyzed in his legs. (It did not, thankfully.) Like the Hamlin play, this one happened in the opening minutes of the first quarter. But the teams kept playing. NFL teams have always kept playing.

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For the league, it has worked. The NFL is the constructor of its own reality. Until Monday night, it was unclear if the league’s world-building abilities even had a limit. Now that threshold is obvious.

The league did not seem prepared for what happened after medical professionals treated Hamlin and drove him away from the field. ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck said several times that the game was poised to restart after a five-minute break for the teams to collect themselves. “That’s the word we get from the league and the word we get from down on the field,” Buck said. About 100 percent of people watching the game thought that sounded insane, and after both teams’ head coaches met with the referee on the field, the restart did not go ahead. NFL vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said a restart was never the league’s plan and that the referee was meeting with the coaches “to make sure they had the proper time inside the locker room to discuss what was best.” You and I do not know if Buck was incorrect or if Vincent is obfuscating for the NFL and his boss, commissioner Roger Goodell. ESPN released a statement that did not address Vincent directly but pointedly wasn’t a retraction.

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Both stories raise issues. As Vincent acknowledged, it would’ve been insensitive to trot players back onto the field shortly after a horrifying event that brought many of them to tears. (It’s also the kind of supervillainous behavior that isn’t hard to imagine the NFL exploring.) The other story is that the NFL was just as shocked as the rest of us (understandable, as league employees are also people) and was scrambling to figure out what to do, including putting some of the decision-making on the teams and players who had just seen a co-worker receive CPR in the middle of a workplace that has millions of eyeballs on it. The modern NFL has never faced a moment like this one, but it should have had a prescriptive procedure waiting for the event of a medical crisis of this magnitude. Was asking the teams for a decision part of the plan? Ideally not. Players and coaches had enough going on after the devastation of seeing Hamlin collapse and exit.

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Perhaps the NFL did the worst thing that people are speculating about and tried to wedge players back to work after five minutes. Perhaps the league response was more natural and humane, and the league was just hustling to figure out a plan in an unprecedented situation. Either would stem from the same aura of invincibility that permeates everything the NFL does in its perch as one of the most powerful forces in American culture.

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Historically, nothing stops this train. Games don’t end early. Player injuries are just part of a big bucket of things that have historically failed to cause more than mild changes to NFL scheduling. The NFL plays through damn near anything. It staged every single scheduled game during the pre-vaccine pandemic season in 2020, postponing some but always getting them in.

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Field conditions have gotten some preseason games called off. Labor disputes have knocked off some games over the years. (Here is the full list.) World War II more or less dismantled the league because hundreds of players had to go fight the Nazis. But that was before the AFL-NFL merger and the rise of the NFL as a singular force in national entertainment. In the event of World War III, the league would find a way to get its players exempted from the military draft in the name of national unity, and games would continue up to and quite possibly through the point of nuclear conflict.

Most of the time, when the real world intercedes on football in ways the NFL would find uncomfortable, the show finds a way to go on. That doesn’t just mean games, but the entire media-industrial complex around the NFL, the one that sustains the league on days when games aren’t being played. One quarterback can suffer multiple blows to the head in a few days, and all of the hand-wringing about it won’t stop conversations about how quickly he can get back to action or what it means for his team’s playoff hopes. (Then that player can get another concussion.) A different quarterback can face dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct, deny them all, sit through a suspension, and get back on the field. Eventually the discussion returns to how he’ll look under center in Cleveland. The whirring of the machine never really stops, so the actual football never stops, either. This is a machine with only one speed.

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Sometimes a sport needs to slow down and reckon with itself. But the NFL isn’t built for that. In this league, reckoning means getting sports’ biggest ocean liner back in the water. The league has probably already started thinking about the cold logistics of all of this—about whether the Bills and Bengals need to play again, about how much time will be left on the clock, about what happens to the AFC standings if they don’t, about if it’s possible to (gasp) delay the playoffs that are set to start in two weeks. In the weeks ahead, the NFL will contemplate all of these things, because that is a lot easier than contemplating anything else about where this sport has now led one of its brightest young players and people.

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