Photo: Getty
  /  01.11.2023

We have seen a lot of wild and crazy things on the football field but nothing like what was witnessed on Monday, Jan. 2. During a pivotal Monday Night Football matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, safety Damar Hamlin walked a few steps and collapsed after making a tackle on wide receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin suffered from cardiac arrest, and trainers had to administer CPR for several minutes before placing the athlete on oxygen and putting him into an ambulance. The game was stopped, and millions waited with bated breath for an update on the 24-year-old. Never before had the NFL had a player’s heart stop while in the field of play. At the nearby University of Cincinnati Medical Center, he was intubated and placed in intensive care. By Thursday (Jan. 5), he was alert, able to move his hands and feet, and able to communicate by writing. The next day (Jan. 6), Hamlin’s breathing tube was removed, and he was able to speak well enough to FaceTime with his Bills teammates.

One week after nearly dying on the field, Hamlin was transferred from Cincinnati to a hospital in Buffalo to continue care. While grateful for the remarkable strides in a fairly short amount of time, it is unknown what the long-term effects will be and what that means for his football future. Dr. Timothy Pritts, division chief of general surgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and vice chair for clinical operations at UC Health, said that the former Pitt star is on a “very normal to even accelerated trajectory from the life-threatening event that he underwent.” What exactly caused the event is still unknown as more tests were being conducted on Tuesday (Jan. 10) in Buffalo. However, it is widely believed that commotio cordis could be to blame. It’s an extremely rare incident in which blunt force to the chest – such as a football tackle or collision – occurs at a precise moment in the cardiac cycle.

The possibility of that being the cause has already prompted parents of football players to advocate for better chest-protecting equipment. In the meantime, this incident has thrust the NFL back into the public eye of scrutiny. As medical personnel attended to Hamlin on the field, ESPN broadcaster Joe Buck shared that the league was giving the teams five minutes to warm up and resume play. While the NFL has denied doing so, ESPN is standing its ground, insisting that the information came from the network’s rules expert John Parry, who was in direct contact with league offices. Whether that was the case or not in this particular set of circumstances, the NFL’s reputation precedes itself. They have tried, on occasion, to separate themselves from the perception of not showing much regard for the safety and well-being of their players – during and after their careers. In recent years, rules and protocols have been put into place to reduce safety hazards, but it’s the handling of situations such as Hamlin’s that makes those practices appear ornamental at best. It took 66 minutes for the game to be suspended; it was officially canceled later in the week.

A week after the scary incident, a high ranking official from one of the two teams involved wished to remain anonymous but offered further insight. The source told ESPN that Dawn Aponte, the league’s chief football administrator, was being pressured by the command center to resume the game. “The Lord himself could come down, and we were not going to play again,” said the source before adding that Aponte held it together despite not getting consistent and direct messaging. The source was adamant that the decision not to resume the game came as a result of the Bengals and the Bills sticking to their guns. After all, you could see the devastation, pain, and confusion of players, coaches, and fans alike as Hamlin laid on the turf. Spokesperson Brian McCarthy said there would be no further comment from the league following the latest report. A day after the incident, commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a memo to all 32 teams stating he made the decision for postponement after speaking with both teams and the NFL Players Association: “After speaking with both teams and NFLPA leadership, I decided to postpone last night’s game and have our focus remain on Damar and his family.”

The memo went on to disclose that additional mental health and support resources were being made available to players and staff of all clubs in the wake of Hamlin’s incident. The NFL allowed league-wide demonstrations of support, including outlining the “3” on the 30-yard lines in Buffalo red or blue, “Love for Damar 3” T-shirts worn during warmups, and “3” patches worn by the Bills for the final week of the regular season. Those things are cool, but what about the support needed when the buzz dies down? What kind of support will Hamlin receive beyond the scope of the NFL season? Players don’t qualify for a pension until they have completed three seasons. They aren’t eligible for the five years of post-retirement health insurance covered by the NFL until they’ve played at least three seasons; Hamlin is a second-year player on a three-year/$3.6 million contract that is not guaranteed.

Last week, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive VP of football operations, publicly committed to providing Hamlin with the resources needed to live a quality life after he recovers. He told reporters, “Obviously, in situations like this, we expect, God willing, that he would recover. But he will — he would — get the resources necessary to make sure he has what he needs to live a complete life.” We hope they do the right thing but as it stands, the league is not under any legal obligation to do so. Under the collective bargaining agreement, annual payouts for total and permanent disability are set at $48,000, but that can change in 2024. Next year, payments will be reduced if the player is receiving social security benefits. According to disability lawyer Ray Genco, who has represented players in their cases against the NFL, “Under the new CBA, total and permanent disabilities resulting from on-field injuries to active players have a minimum monthly benefit of $4,000 per month with it increasing under certain conditions. This monthly benefit is described as for ‘life’ or ‘as long as the disability persists’… This payment comes with related medical expenses being paid by the plan, but those bills and treatment plans can be challenged and treatment often gets delayed for approval.”

It’s a dilemma that former players have lamented over for decades. It was just last summer that the NFL pledged to halt its practice of “race norming,” or assuming that Black players had lower cognitive function out the gate. The discriminatory practice resulted in a lower number of awards to Black retirees due to the inability to show that their NFL careers resulted in a cognitive deficit. McCarthy issued a statement at the time, asserting the league was committed to abolishing the practice and that new norms would be applied “prospectively and retrospectively for those players who otherwise would have qualified for an award but for the application of race-based norms.”

Whether the league makes good on its promises to Hamlin and his family remain to be seen. The “My word is bond” approach would not be necessary if the NFL adjusted its policies and practices to legally ensure that the men behind the billion-dollar machine are taken care of and able to live quality lives once they hang up the cleats. We are seeing more guaranteed contracts but only for a small percentage of players. There needs to be a top-down resolution.

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