By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
The Damar Hamlin saga is one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen during my 65 years of life, which includes 28 as a journalist for Sports Illustrated. Gruesome, life-threatening or even fatal injuries have always come with the turf in athletics, but Hamlin’s incident has had a far-reaching effect unlike any other that I can recall. How lasting it will be remains to be seen.
When the 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety collapsed and went into cardiac arrest after making a routine tackle during a nationally televised game on January 2, the nation went into shock and the ripples were felt everywhere.
Fans rushed to the hospital in Cincinnati where his life was saved. Social media, and traditional media as well, were flooded with prayerful support from all walks of life. Millions of dollars of donations poured into the charity toy drive Hamlin had started for needy kids. And the usual debate about the safety of football, and sports in general, was ignited as it always is when an athlete is stricken in a dramatic, public way.
The big surprise was that Hamlin is not a star in his sport or a household name who could be expected to stir such widespread emotion and sustained coverage until his release from the hospital on Jan. 9, or cause the NFL to suspend and ultimately cancel a game that had implications for the upcoming playoffs.
I don’t recall things quite like this happening after tight end Kevin Everett of the Bills was felled by a life-threatening spinal cord injury during a game in 2007. Or when New York Jets linebacker Dennis Byrd was paralyzed by an on-field collision in 1992. Or when New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley was left wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life by a hit from safety Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders in 1978.
However, it is hardly surprising that, given our tempestuous political climate, Hamlin instantly became fodder for conspiracy theorists who claimed without evidence (as usual) that the Covid vaccine was to blame. There has also been hardly-new condemnation of the NFL for profiting off games in which players who are mostly Black and from disadvantaged backgrounds brutalize each other while their long-term health is given short shrift by the white men who dominate the League’s hierarchy.
Some commentary I’ve heard has also savaged the NFL for promoting a blood sport that is being called a disgusting product of a paternalistic/male-dominated culture that revels in bloody violence. That charge isn’t new, but I’m now hearing talk that football should be banned and commentators like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham have jumped on it as evidence that a woke mob is coming to take our beloved pleasures and pastimes.
A deep breath is clearly in order.
As of this writing (four days after the incident), it isn’t known exactly what sent Hamlin into cardiac arrest, though it possibly could have been commotio cardis, a condition brought on by a blow to the chest that interrupts the heartbeat. If so, there’s no way to prevent that from happening in a rough contact sport.
In 1998, defenseman Chris Pronger of the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues was struck in the chest by a puck and collapsed. He survived and returned to playing. It’s remarkable that such incidents aren't more common.
Yes, football and hockey are rough but not as bad as they used to be. Rules changes in the NFL have made blows to the head and most instances of contact with a vulnerable quarterback or receiver illegal. Safety equipment has been steadily improving since the early days when players wore helmets without facemasks. Much still needs to be done on the pro and college levels, but the NFL has been working to address the effects of concussions and other hard blows to the head.
So has the NHL, which has greatly reduced fighting, a remarkable move given the glorification of enforcers (players whose role is mainly to use their fists) and the popularity of websites like Hockeyfights.com, which curates bouts for any and all to watch.
Sure, our society enjoys violent entertainment. That boxing was eclipsed in popularity by the more brutal mixed martial arts attests to that. And it has often been said that many people watch auto racing simply for the spectacular crashes. But violence isn’t why football and hockey are my favorite sports.
First off, I need a rooting interest (New York’s Giants and Islanders) to get emotionally invested in games. But I mostly admire the skill level and strategies these sports require, and the gripping, often-dramatic way games play out. I’m sure I’m not unique in this respect. I also believe that the appeal of sports has been magnified by fantasy leagues and legal gambling. Banning football or hockey is a pipe dream when billions of dollars are at play. It’s also unnecessary.
No sport is entirely safe, but I think most people are aware of the risks when they choose to play one. Possible fame and fortune certainly go a long way toward diluting any concern. And while extremely unfortunate, tragic incidents can lead to positive developments, though it often takes public outcry, lawsuits and fan boycotts to inspire action. Three NASCAR drivers died of skull or neck injuries in crashes during an eight-month span before the death of icon Dale Earnhardt Sr. during the 2001 Daytona 500 finally moved the stock car circuit to redesign its vehicles, require head and neck restraints, and add safety barriers to tracks. NASCAR hasn’t had a fatality since.
Major League Baseball was very slow to adopt batting helmets after Cleveland’s Ray Chapman was fatally beaned by a pitch in 1920. They were finally made mandatory in 1971, and now include ear flaps and in some cases face shields. Beanings still occur, but no one else has been killed.
Without doubt, witnessing a serious or fatal injury delivers the shock of cold reality. The hit by Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor that snapped the leg of Washington quarterback Joe Theisman on national TV in 1985 was very hard to forget. Same thing if you were watching when IndyCar driver Justin Wilson was killed by flying debris during a race at Pocono Raceway in 2015.
Sometimes, if you feel you have a personal connection to an athlete, you don’t have to witness their tragedy for it to hit home hard. For me, such an incident occurred in 1988 after I’d spent a day with journeyman jockey Mike Venezia at New York City’s Aqueduct Racetrack for a profile I was writing. Horse racing is a sport where both humans and animals frequently suffer, and it has been the target of calls for a ban.
Mike was extremely friendly and cooperative, and I liked him very much. Ten months later I heard the news that he’d been killed during a race when the horse he was riding threw him and he was kicked in the head by hooves. Remembering his death makes me feel sad as I still have one of his riding crops that he gave me.
No matter what comes of the Hamlin incident, it has obviously served as a sobering reminder of the humanity of athletes. “Putting it all in perspective” is the sports equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. We pause and reflect, but life goes on. With any luck, though, some good comes from bad events like this one.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.