A lot of folks desire a resumption of normal NFL life now that Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is awake, alert, and making a remarkable recovery that included being able to speak to his teammates Friday via video chat. That makes them feel comforted and comfortable. But we should not just return to where we were from a pro football culture standpoint before Hamlin’s horrifying collapse last Monday night in Cincinnati.
The nation can breathe a sigh of relief with Hamlin back to breathing on his own. America’s game narrowly avoided catastrophe. But the NFL can’t just go back to business as usual. As Bills general manager Brandon Beane said, “The players can’t unsee what they saw.” There will be a line of demarcation in NFL history, before Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest and after it. There has to be.
It starts with how players are regarded, treated, and respected. If the NFL and its club stewards have a heart, then after seeing Hamlin’s stop on the field they will display greater appreciation for the risk players take and greater recognition of their humanity.
I’m done hearing owners talk about the “risk” they bear with stadium financing or escrow for guaranteed contracts. That’s not the real risk in the NFL, and we all know it.
I also don’t want to hear league suits or avaricious owners (looking at you, Jerry Jones) proselytizing for expanding the regular season to 18 games. The NFL can’t talk out of both sides of its mouth with player safety. Risk is directly proportionate to exposure, and if you’re exposing players to more games you’re exposing them to more risk of injury. Period.
That’s not laying the blame for Hamlin’s terrifying injury at the feet of the expanded 17-game regular season, but math matters. The more plays you play the more likelihood of injury, the more injuries, the more likelihood of a catastrophic one.
With the Commanders starting Sam Howell on Sunday, he will be the 65th starting quarterback this season, the most in NFL history in a non-strike season. Not all of those changes are because of injury.
But it feels like NFL players are being pushed to their limits. After the inaugural year of the 17-game slate in 2021, the league said it saw no “substantial” change in the injury rate. Still, if the NFL wants to expand the regular season, add a second bye and spread the 272 games over 19 weeks.
Give the players a rest — literally.
In the wake of Hamlin skirting death on an NFL field, it’s also time to reassess our cavalier attitude toward risk in the NFL context. Yes, players sign up for a certain amount of health risk to play professional football, but that can’t be a blank-check justification for writing off the brutality of the sport. We can’t view quality of life as collateral damage.
This is the age of player agency and empowerment. A landmark moment happened following Hamlin’s sobering situation. Players from the Bills and the Bengals demanded to be viewed as more than entertainment commodities. They decided the show must not go on with Hamlin fighting for his life.
There’s no way to put that proverbial toothpaste back in the tube, and I don’t think the NFL should try.
It’s time to pay more than lip service and platitudes to the significant risk NFL players take every week. There are human beings under those helmets, some really wonderful ones such as Hamlin.
How about the owners not holding the green line when it comes to guaranteed contracts? How about a culture that doesn’t treat players like disposable razor blades? How about all of us associated with football not reducing them solely to their job or fuel for fantasy teams?
That would be a much greater and lasting tribute to Hamlin than painting his No. 3 on the 30-yard line and NFL players wearing “Love for Damar” T-shirts in pregame warm-ups.
To the league’s credit, it has worked assiduously to make the game safer, funding safety innovation and improvement.
The league and the NFL Players Association announced in March that helmet testing revealed that the top-rated helmets are nine times more effective than they were before the dawn of testing in 2015. Concussions were down 25 percent between 2018-21 from 2015-17.
In December, the league announced the NFL Contact Detection Challenge, a competition to try to find new and more accurate ways to measure and analyze the timing, duration, and frequency of contact during games.
“Quantifying the risk of injury that players face in every possible in-game scenario is a crucial step in understanding how we can reduce that risk, and ultimately prevent injuries,” said Jennifer Langton, NFL senior vice president of health and safety innovation.
The league’s Competition Committee consistently has worked to reduce the frequency of or outright eliminate plays that demonstrate a higher rate of injury. The league takes this seriously because it knows player safety is an existential threat.
But there is only so much that can be done, particularly when the primary source of protection is also the most dangerous weapon on the field — the helmet. We still don’t know what caused Hamlin’s need for CPR and defibrillation on the field. But he took a helmet in the chest from Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins.
NFL football is a human car crash sport with automobile accident injuries. We were reminded of that in stark fashion by Hamlin.
“Football is a very great and competitive game … but life is bigger than this game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Thursday. “It’s just one of these humbling moments for all of us that stands out. I’d say as a coach it’s different, and I’ve expressed this to the players multiple times. The amount of respect that I have for them and what they do, and how they do it, is immense.
“Obviously, there’s nothing more important than the health and safety of our players. I respect how much they put into this. As a coach, that’s not something that I ever think about worrying about getting hurt in the game … I know the players, it’s different.”
It appears Hamlin’s story is going to have the happy ending people prayed for.
Hopefully, his quality of life remains unchanged from where it was when he suited up at Paycor Stadium. But the NFL can’t be unchanged.