The first game of Monday Night Football to take place in 2023 ended in a rare tragedy: 24-year-old Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills collapsed minutes into his game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Hamlin is a safety for the Bills and during Monday night’s game, he tackled Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. Video footage from this moment shows that Hamlin tackled Higgins, making contact in the head and chest area. Hamlin gets up after the tackle, takes a few steps, and promptly collapses backward to the ground and his body goes limp. Medical personnel rushed to the field. He was carried off the field on a stretcher and taken to an area hospital for further testing and treatment.
It was a lot to take in. Hamlin’s team was visibly upset and even shedding tears. Eventually, players, coaches, and staff circled together and knelt in prayer while fans stayed totally silent and millions of viewers watched the ordeal from home. The game was suspended for over an hour before the National Football League announced it was officially postponing the game—a very rare move. Then on Tuesday, the NFL announced it won’t be resuming the Bills-Bengals game at all this week, and that the league had “no decision regarding the possible resumption of the game at a later date.”
We’ve tried to answer the most pressing questions swirling the internet surrounding Hamlin and the NFL’s decision.
What caused Hamlin to collapse like that?
We don’t know yet. The Bills’ official statement mentioned cardiac arrest, which is when the heart stops beating suddenly. The lack of blood flow to the brain and other organs can cause a person to lose consciousness, become disabled, or even die if it’s not treated immediately. That might explain Hamlin’s sudden collapse, but it’s not entirely certain, either. Luckily, the immediate treatment he received meant his heart was likely restarted by paramedics before he was taken off the field.
There’s speculation that Hamlin might have instead suffered a heart arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat that occurs when electrical signals that coordinate the heart’s beats don’t work properly. There are many different types of heart arrhythmias and at this point it’s impossible to know exactly which kind, if any, might have happened to Hamlin. One other critical question remains unanswered: How long did Hamlin’s brain go without oxygen? Brain tissue dies quickly when deprived of oxygen, and the longer it goes without it, the more damage it can cause the body.
What happened to Hamlin could also be a freak occurrence that’s incredibly rare, a situation where blunt-force trauma to the chest in the exact right spot can impact the heart and cause an arrhythmia.
How did the NFL respond to Hamlin’s fall?
As soon as Hamlin collapsed, the league’s emergency action plan was activated, prompting medical personnel to rush to Hamlin’s side. They administered CPR, working on him for 15 minutes, while the league suspended play for over an hour. Eventually, league officials said the game had been postponed, about 43 minutes after the game had been paused. According to one executive who spoke to the New York Times, “neither coach was talking about resuming play, the players were not thinking of resuming play.” There was confusion though—after Hamlin was taken off the field by ambulance, ESPN’s broadcasters were told players would have about five minutes to prepare to resume the game, with Joe Buck saying on live TV, “that’s the word we get from the league and the word we get from down on the field, but nobody’s moving.”
By Tuesday, the NFL had released an update that said the league would not be resuming the Bengals-Bills game this week and that it hadn’t made any decisions on when that game would pick back up again.
NFL officials have disputed that, insisting that resuming the game was never on the table. Postponement is uncommon for the league, despite injuries. In fact, earlier in that same game against the Bengals, cornerback Taron Johnson suffered a head injury after a tackle, was seen by medical staff, and eventually walked off the field. The game continued.
How did the other players react?
It was obvious that the Bills were shaken, with many players sitting down and hanging their heads, weeping openly and hugging each other. It was a situation that has never really happened in the NFL before and it was clear that it had a traumatic effect on players. Even those who weren’t playing Monday night put out heartfelt messages to Hamlin, including J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Arizona Cardinals, who tweeted, “The game is not important. Damar Hamlin’s life is important. Please be ok. Please.” He was joined by Patrick Mahomes, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, who said, “Praying hard. Please be okay, man.”
Doesn’t the NFL have a bad track record with injuries?
Oh boy, where do we start. Just this season, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had been hit at least three times during games since September. When Tagovailoa resumed playing, it inspired fresh backlash to the NFL’s handling of concussions and player safety—which basically worked and forced the NFL to amend its policy about when it would bench players after hits to the head.
The concussions that happen during play have also been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy—commonly known as CTE. It’s a degenerative brain disease found among people with a history of repeated head trauma and it’s especially common in football players—and it is rare and incurable, with symptoms ranging from difficulty thinking, memory loss, impulsive behavior, and aggression to depression and suicidal thoughts. The NFL denied there was any connection between long-term brain damage and blows to the head until the overwhelming scientific evidence and a class-action lawsuit forced them to reevaluate their stance.
On the other hand, this injury may be a totally random event that wasn’t necessarily preventable. Only time will tell.
What’s the league going to do now after Hamlin’s collapse?
That’s not clear at this point, since Hamlin is still in critical condition. The league is notorious for tamping down criticism when it comes to player safety and being too slow to act. As the most lucrative American sports league, the value of NFL teams range from $3 to $8 billion, not including multimillion dollar sponsorship deals, which certainly helps the show go on.*
But the incident has clearly rattled former players. Ryan Clark, a former defensive back who played in the NFL and is now an ESPN analyst, expressed his shock this way: “We use these cliches ‘going to war;’ ‘willing to die;’ ‘give it all.’ That’s all talk. It’s a game. A game! You never suit up and think you’re not going to make it home.” Viewers likely will not be quick to forget the incident, either.
Update, Jan. 4, 2023: This article has been updated to more clearly describe the tackle seen in the video footage.
Correction, Jan. 4, 2023: This article also originally misstated the value of the NFL as $2.8 billion. Each NFL team is worth between $3 billon and $8 billion.