We’re All Complicit in the N.F.L.’s Violent Spectacle

The horrors of Monday night sparked plenty of prayers for a man who very well could have died right before our eyes.

Damar Hamlin, a young safety for the Buffalo Bills, collapsing to the turf in cardiac arrest after a routine hit. Medical workers trying to revive him for 10 minutes. Teammates in tears. An ambulance carrying him off to a hospital.

My prayer, aside from seeing Hamlin leave that Cincinnati hospital able to live a fruitful, productive life, is that we never watch a single snap of an N.F.L. game the same way again.

Too often, too many of us, myself included, watch the N.F.L. with narrow vision. We focus on what we can get out of these games, the diverting enjoyment, while playing down the risks to those like Hamlin who have steeled themselves to endure the pain and face the danger inherent to football.

It’s unclear whether Hamlin’s medical emergency was related to the tackle that preceded it. But the specter of destruction on the field, let’s face it, is part of what makes football such an American draw. That’s why the highlight shows are full of the most jarring, brutal hits.

We’ve become inured to suffering, absolving ourselves with some version of internal narrative: Whew, that guy who just got crushed and has been lying on the field for ten minutes just gave the thumbs-up sign. He’s going to be fine! Bummer for him, but next man up …

Will it take a player nearly dying on national television for us to widen our view and examine why and how we watch?

“What fans get out of suffering in sports is meaning,” said Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick who has written extensively about injury, suffering and sport. I used that quote in a column nearly two years ago, and here again, it sticks.

“The meaning fans get,” he continued, “is based on the idea that when they watch these games, something really profound, powerful and important is happening — and life or death stakes are part of it.”

Yes, we love the great plays, the comebacks, the stories. Amid all of its chaos, the art of the game played at its highest level cannot be denied. It is easy to be drawn to the potent mix of symphonic creativity and aggression. It is not so easy to step up and stand up and honestly admit that each game we watch hovers on a razor’s edge.

During every play in every game of what has become an interminably long season (17 games now, an expansion made by the N.F.L. for pure profit) the athletes on the field are one step away from physical horror. That horror can take a toll slowly and well after a career is over — as we’ve seen time and again with former players bowed by brain damage.

Or it could happen as it did last night, with a player on a stretcher, carted off as we watched, millions of us unsure if 24-year-old Damar Hamlin would live.

Damar Hamlin, 24, is in his second season with the Buffalo Bills.Credit…Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

Football, of course, exists at the apex of American sport. It is our great elixir, the weekly fall-to-winter festival that brings more of us together than any other sport. In a nation divided, the game remains a unifying force, a magnet drawing every race, orientation and class.

There is certainly good in that. And yet, we can no longer love the game while feigning ignorance about its costs. The players are not avatars or objects, which is how they are too often viewed. They are young men who are putting their lives on the line for our entertainment.

Take stock.

If Hamlin’s collapse does not peel the gauze from your eyes, step back and consider other terrifying events we’ve witnessed this grueling, gruesome season. On Monday night, a few plays before Hamlin collapsed, Bills cornerback Taron Johnson lay on the turf, surrounded by trainers who took several minutes evaluating him for a head injury.

This past weekend, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Nick Foles convulsed on the field after being sacked.

Remember Tua Tagovailoa slamming his head against the field in a September game against the Bengals, his hands and fingers stretched out, splayed, frozen. That display was the fencing response, as doctors call it, a sign of brain injury. Tagovailoa ended up being transported to a hospital, just like Hamlin.

Playing against the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 25, Tagovailoa sustained a second concussion.

After that Packers game, and after the Dolphins lost a fifth consecutive game on Sunday, talk among football pundits centered on whether Miami could win its last game of the season and make the playoffs. Their concern was more about whether Tagovailoa would be cleared to play, not whether he would be OK.

We can safely surmise that after suffering multiple severe concussions in four months, Tagovailoa being OK is anything but certain.

Tua Tagovailoa sustained two diagnosed concussions this season. He was carted off the field in September after a hit caused him to slam his head onto the turf.Credit…Jim Rassol/Associated Press

But on the circus goes. It must. There are billions of dollars at stake, and most fans don’t care enough about welfare of their great gridiron entertainers. Over the course of the next few decades, many of the present-day N.F.L. heroes will be locked in a struggle against diminished minds damaged by the game they played. But by then, there will be a new crop of gladiators to distract from the ever-unfolding calamity.

As fans, it could help if we examine ourselves, search within and explore why we watch — why nothing, no amount of suffering, causes us to pull away from the game.

What can the league do? What should it do? With players’ size, strength and speed growing in what seems like exponential fashion every decade, the N.F.L. has perhaps been lucky to have been spared of even more terrifying spectacles.

Maybe it is essential to go back over a hundred years ago and look at football history. In the early part of the 20th century, the game was so violent and played with such wanton disregard for safety that fatal injuries were not uncommon. They often occurred when players were kicked and punched at the bottom of the pile in all-out scrums.

After President Theodore Roosevelt pushed for changes allowing play to open, including the introduction of the forward pass, sure enough, the spate of death diminished.

But the specter remained. It always will in a game this violent. The league can better police blows to the head. It can penalize or even toss out players who injure opponents with dirty plays. But violence and danger will remain at the beating heart of football. Take it out, and the game is football no more.

So, we will watch, enthralled, and sometimes horrified: This week’s remaining games, the playoffs, the Super Bowl. We will watch, but hopefully, we will never see the game quite the same way again.

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