Arguably the most gripping story of 2023 to date happened on the night of Jan. 2. Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in Cincinnati, suffering cardiac arrest after making a tackle early in the Bills–Bengals Monday Night Football game. Players on both teams were so distraught that the game was suspended (and eventually canceled). The fans in the stadium and millions more watching on live television were stunned, wondering if they had just witnessed the death of a young man.
As you know, the story has taken a joyful turn. Emergency medical personnel were able to restore Hamlin’s heartbeat. Two days later, he regained consciousness. Initially able to communicate only by writing, the first thing he wrote was: “Did we win?” — endearing himself even more closely to his teammates and football fans everywhere.
We should be encouraged by how deeply Americans appreciate the value of a single life.
In the days following his collapse, we have learned what a remarkable young man Damar Hamlin is. Growing up in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, where he was the star player and captain of the football team at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School, he begged his coaches to let him be the water boy for his teammates when an injury knocked him out of a playoff game. The toy drive for children that Hamlin had started has raised millions of dollars in the days following his collapse, but it turns out that he has been organizing toy drives since 2020, long before he became famous. Joined by several other NFL players, Hamlin also holds summer camps, coaching Pittsburgh-area youngsters in football.
Nine days after that frightening incident, Damar Hamlin went home. We don’t know yet if he will play football again, but all his bodily functions seem to be normal. Now, the trauma and shock felt by all who saw it happen have been supplanted by jubilation and gratitude. Praise God!
There are several significant takeaways from this episode that impact all of us.
First, there should be gratitude for advances in health care. Had such an incident occurred a half century ago, there’s a good chance that Hamlin would not have survived the night of his cardiac arrest. He is fortunate that he lives in the 21st century. Consider this historical perspective: If Presidents James Garfield (assassinated in 1881) and William McKinley (assassinated in 1901) had been shot in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was, they would have easily survived. In turn, if Reagan had been shot in 1881 or 1901, he undoubtedly would have died that same day. The state of medical knowledge has had a major impact on American history.
Second, the NFL no longer adheres to the old dogma “The show must go on.” As a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, I watched in sickening helplessness when Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes dropped dead (from heart troubles) on the field at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 24, 1971. I will never forget the image of the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus standing over Hughes and frantically waving for the medics. Butkus was such a ferocious competitor that players felt that he would just as soon knock them unconscious when tackling them, yet there he was, compassionately rallying to the support of a fellow player. We all could see from what was going on that Hughes had died. Things were different in 1971: In a state of numbness, the Lions and Bears played out the last minute or two of the game. Ouch. The NFL is more sensitive to its players today. The league recognizes that some things are more important than a football game. That’s progress!
Third, the response of the fans was inspiring and encouraging. As one who has long been intrigued by parallels between ancient Rome and the United States, I have wondered whether the extreme popularity of sports in the U.S. is a sign of cultural decay and demoralization, as it was in Rome. Occasionally, a rabid American sports spectator (either intoxicated or overpowered by mesmeric primal passions) has exulted when a player on his team has hurt an opponent, knocking him out literally or knocking him out of the game. Such depraved behavior made me wonder whether American society was moving toward that dark world depicted in the 1970s film Rollerball. In that movie, the fans were so bloodthirsty that eventually the rules were changed to allow players to kill each other during “games” so that the victor was the team that survived. Clearly and most emphatically, that is NOT where American culture is going.
At least three times during the current football season — the Hamlin incident; the in-game injuries to another Buffalo Bills safety, Dane Jackson (who avoided permanent neck/spinal damage); and the in-game injuries to Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (who suffered multiple head injuries) — fans have held their collective breath while medical personnel attended to the injured players before ambulances transported the players to hospitals. What has been striking has been how, in every such incident, virtually all the fans have stood silently and respectfully. Huge numbers of them, regardless of which side they were rooting for, were obviously praying for the fallen player.
This isn’t Rome! The pagan Romans got their thrills from death and suffering in the gladiatorial games in arenas. Americans, by marked contrast, value and cherish life. The Romans weren’t interested in fair fights (as when lions fought the Christians, for example). Again, by marked contrast, American football fans love the sport because of a deep respect for and admiration of excellence, a recognition that competition brings out the best in human beings. Americans have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness. They want competition to be fair, with officials enforcing rules impartially so that the best individual or team may win. In an era when so many Americans want to rig the political system to obtain special favors for themselves, it is encouraging to see how highly valued the ideal of a fair contest on a level playing field remains.
One more takeaway from the fans’ response to these scary injuries: We should be encouraged by how deeply Americans appreciate the value of a single life. We all know what a tragedy it is when anyone dies — whether a young athlete playing a sport; a man or woman serving in the U.S. military; policemen, firefighters, and others losing their lives in the course of duty; etc. Perhaps we should remember a statement attributed to that heartless monster, Josef Stalin: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” As the American nation paused to consider what a tragedy it would be for one professional football player to lose his life, may we not also pause to consider the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine? Think of the millions of Ukrainian youths whose freedom to grow up in peace and find their own joys in life is being threatened by Vladimir Putin’s genocidal campaign. I know there have been some bad apples (corrupt hustlers) in Ukraine, but, whatever their sins, they are not nearly enough for us to turn our back on an entire nation and consign its people to extinction or enslavement. Those lives matter, too!
Fourth, there were some voices raised questioning whether we might be better off banning football as the game is currently played. That isn’t going to happen for the reasons listed two paragraphs ago, but certainly we can support reforms that reduce the risk of serious injury. The essential point, though, is that we can never eliminate risk entirely. This is one of the utopian myths held by many people on the American political left. But a risk-free world is ephemeral, illusory. It also isn’t consistent with human nature. There is a spirit in man — restless, and, some would say, reckless — that drives individuals to risk their lives climbing mountains, exploring outer space, going off to war. (READ MORE: The War on Football Stems From the Drive to Obliterate Traditional Sex Roles)
There is no denying the risks to life and limb in playing football. Indeed, the human head was not designed to be a battering ram, and yet that is how it is used and abused in the game. But the positives of football outweigh the negatives for those who choose to play it. Whether the individual reward comes from being part of a team at the scholastic level, from experiencing a sense of satisfaction and joy in attaining a cherished goal, or from obtaining financial wealth at the professional level, people are going to continue to play football. And, when you think about it, what right have others to say they shouldn’t be allowed to? Would those critics ban mountain climbing? What about driving, which causes tens of thousands of fatalities per year? We haven’t even banned smoking, even though the odds of long-term damage to one’s health are far higher than they are for playing football.
Look, folks, I grieve every serious injury that athletes suffer, but human life inevitably entails risks. The only risk-free state is death, and, well, nuts to that! Let each person choose how to live his or her life to the fullest, taking on risks according to individual comfort level, and let us enjoy this risky business known as life to the fullest. Let us be free.
Best wishes, Damar! And watch out for my Lions next year.