The NFL — and its TV partners that include Fox, CBS and ESPN — spent the final Sunday of the regular season celebrating Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s recovery from a near-death experience following a ferocious hit during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals the previous week.
Hamlin, 24, went into cardiac arrest but was revived thanks to the quick work of medical personnel at the stadium and at a hospital in Cincinnati. After several days of unconsciousness, Hamlin had a breathing tube removed and was pictured in his hospital bed watching the Bills game.
While it is great news that Hamlin survived, the injury report from any given Sunday underscores the violence that consumes football and can leave players with a lifetime of debilitating injuries.
This past weekend’s report shows Arizona Cardinals quarterback David Blough left his game with a concussion. Because of injuries, he was the Cardinals’ fourth quarterback to start in four weeks.
Three other players left games with concussions. In all, at least three dozen players suffered a range of injuries to knees, ankles, neck and back, adding to the long list of players injured this year.
Detroit Lions running back D’Andre Swift injured his leg and took a forearm hit to the head on the same play.
The injuries provided more opportunity for the TV networks to air more commercials. The players may be disposable, but the NFL money machine must roll on. The NFL owners, coaches, players, fans, media and gambling companies all share in the glorification of a modern gladiator competition.
Indeed, the league spent the day turning Hamlin’s recovery from an on-field calamity into a celebration.
Hamlin’s No. 3 jersey was on display everywhere. Players wore No. 3 patches on their jerseys and on warm-up T-shirts that said “Love for Damar.” People in the stands held up signs emblazoned with No. 3 and coaches wore hats with No. 3. Hamlin’s injury turned into a money-making opportunity, as his jersey is now a top seller.
Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who reportedly is paid $63 million a year compared with Hamlin’s $825,000, presided over the Bills game while sporting a No. 3 hat.
The feel-good story was made all the more perfect when the Bills’ Nyheim Hines ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. Bills quarterback Josh Allen got emotional after learning it was the team’s first kickoff return for a touchdown in three years and three months.
One reference to the number three that was not mentioned? The average length of an NFL career is just 3.3 years.
Fans may argue that players are paid handsomely for the risk they take. But their careers are short and most contracts are not guaranteed. The NFL implements periodic rule changes to try to make the game safer, but one study found the changes have not made a major difference.
For years, the NFL covered up concussion injuries. One study found that 99% of former NFL players sampled suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain injury known as CTE that is associated with repetitive head trauma.
Studies have also found that NFL players face an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases compared with other elite athletes, and arthritis and dementia were more prevalent among professional football players than the general population.
Broadly, the injury problems in the NFL extend to college, high school and grade school. There are more than 20,000 injuries in college football every year, according to a report on problems within college athletics.
However, the amateur levels often lack proper equipment and medical personnel to diagnose concussions or confront emergencies on the field. One study found most high school coaches in South Dakota were responsible for players’ immediate medical care, but only half had current first-aid certifications.
Most amateur players will never turn pro. Consider: Just 1.6% of college football players are drafted into the NFL.
NFL owners and coaches must do more to keep their players safe and set the tone to protect players at all levels. TV could help by not glorifying vicious hits. The violence has soured some fans who could help by demanding more safety and accountability. Meanwhile, parents of younger players must determine if the risk is worth the reward.
Damar Hamlin’s recovery is worth celebrating, but for too many football players, there is no happy ending.