With the start of the playoffs, the NFL season continues. While 14 teams have Super Bowl hopes, 18 other teams are busy building a team for the upcoming season. On Monday afternoon the belongings were packed. Most of the players had scattered. The harsh reality of the NFL is that some of these players who have packed up their bags never go back to the locker room. Coaches are laid off and their families and the families of many employees have to find new homes and see to their children’s education.
But even in this transitional period, football seemed unimportant last week.
I’ve spent most of my life in the NFL. I was with my dad at RFK Stadium in Washington DC when Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann’s leg. I’ve been both an agent and team leader, dealing with player trauma, with injuries and concussions – on the training ground and on the field. I was met by family members in the training room, in the x-ray room, or even in the hospital. But I’ve never seen anything quite like what happened on Monday Night Football between the Bengals and Bills.
The blow to Damar Hamlin in Cincinnati was neither unusual nor violent. But as we now know, it hit the most vulnerable spot on his chest, at the most vulnerable point close to his heartbeat cycle. As a cardiologist friend of mine told me, someone could try to reenact this scenario a thousand times to create a heart attack. He won’t make it. It was a tragic one-in-a-million situation for Hamlin, but thankfully he appears to be on a positive road to recovery.
What I keep thinking about is the fact that (not to be overly dramatic) Hamlin passed away for a moment. His heart stopped in the field and was resuscitated by an automated external defibrillator. It was nice to see that well-deserved recognition was given to the Bills’ medical professionals who responded first — the press conference, hosted by doctors from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, confirmed that these efforts not only saved Hamlin’s life, but have created a good opportunity for the 24-year-old to hopefully continue playing after his recovery.
We say this all the time about concussions, but it’s true beyond head injuries: football isn’t a contact sport. It’s a collision sport. The NFL has done an admirable job of making the game safer, but it cannot make the game 100 percent safe. It’s a conflict that we who consume the NFL deal with on a weekly basis: We understand the violence. Sometimes we lament the violence. And yet we watch (and even crave) the violence. Hamlin’s life will never be the same because of football, just as many other players’ lives will never be the same after football. Will this put some players and spectators away from the game? Probably not. The NFL is too big to fail.
Since it was a while before the NFL officially suspended play, the knee-jerk criticism of the league was unfair. I remember being in a sustained thunderstorm with frequent lightning at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio. The game was meaningless, and the delays meant it was already getting close to midnight, but it was still a long time before the NFL agreed with all the appropriate parties to end the game — even though both teams wanted to end it. Canceling the game in Cincinnati wasn’t as easy as talking to the two coaching staffs. It took a lot of coordination before announcing a termination, and the NFL had to evaluate many things, not the least of which was the 60,000 fans at Paycor Stadium.
I’ve used the submarine analogy before when discussing the lives of NFL coaches and players: They come in at the end of July and come out in January. There is bondage, struggle and brotherhood. The Bills were family to Hamlin and vice versa. The players and coaching staff witnessed a horrific trauma on the field that will likely be etched in their memories for life. All the positives right now are great – and helping them – but they’ll think about it forever in a month, in six months, in a year. Long-term advice and support will be crucial for these players and staff.
The Packers were one of the first teams to offer counseling to players and their families, back in the 2000s, before mental health discussions were yet mainstream. At that time, a local psychologist only came to the facility by appointment. Now all teams have staff members who attend to the mental health needs of employees in their franchise.
Hamlin is a 2021 sixth-round draft pick in his sophomore year who has a standard split on his contract, meaning he’ll be paid a lower salary (well below minimum) if placed on injured reserve. There is a report that his contract will be adjusted to allow him to receive his full contract amount despite his injury. That gets interesting as it would require a renegotiation first, and the CBA doesn’t allow renegotiations until players have played in the league for three years.
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said the league will “take care” of Hamlin, despite the fact that the security is uncertified (three NFL seasons credited) and eligible for pension benefits. While that’s good publicity, “taking care of Hamelin” can mean many things, some of which may require long-term care. This points to a larger problem of injustice in the league: Owners have consistently brought economic gains to players over the years, and yet there is still a lack of non-negotiable healthcare and retirement benefits for the vast crowd of NFL players are.
I often hear that Twitter is a place of outrage and negativity. First, a pro tip: if this applies to you, you need to follow better people. More importantly, Hamlin’s situation showed how positive a Twitter forum can be. We all wanted to do something, and Twitter showed us a way. It brought out the goodness that resides in so many people in a way no other platform can, and now Hamlin’s charity (The Chasing M’s Foundation Charitable Fund) is on more than $8.6 million in funding increased.
Like so many of you, I hope and pray that Hamlin will continue on this positive path. But as someone who has watched my father go through many difficult situations, I know that there are many hurdles to overcome. Yes, Hamlin is young and in great shape which gives him a great chance of success. As of this writing, he is still hospitalized after being transferred to Buffalo.
What a scary moment for the sport and what an emotional moment that came just six days later in Buffalo. Hamlin will see us through the playoffs and inspire us, but the challenge – like everything – is to keep the energy and support for him. In this fast-moving world of one-day news cycles, we should all try to think and act like this for the long term.
This article was written by Andrew Brandt
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The original of this article “Hamlin’s serious injury highlights major NFL problem” comes from Sports Illustrated Germany.