Soon there will again be football in America. Two NFL games on Saturday, and the rest of the final weekend schedule on Sunday. Some of these games are important (*not really), with 11th-hour playoff ramifications. On Monday night Georgia and TCU will play for the college football national championship, a fascinating matchup of a blue-blooded defending national champion and a genuine party-crashing upstart, ever so rare in the college football world. And on the weekend that follows, the NFL Playoffs begin.
So there will again be football, because football is the most potent entertainment commodity (important words, both together and separately: entertainment, and commodity) in America. And also because Americans do few things better, in 2023, than move forward and beyond things, no matter how unsettling those things might be. (To use a sports column to list those unsettling – and at times unspeakable — things from which Americans move beyond would be disrespectful. You know what they are). This resilience is disturbing, and yet at the same time, understandable – one can only carry around so much anxiety before shedding a few pounds and lurching forward into the day. This behavior seems both innate and recently perfected, a survival instinct of a very modern variety.
Moving forward with football consumption in this particular moment doesn’t require forgetting what happened last Monday night in Cincinnati – the Bills’ Damar Hamlin’s serious incident and the events and scenes that followed, all of which were unsettling in the extreme. Quite the opposite: None of that should be forgotten. But they require a compartmentalization that allows emotional attachment to football to wriggle back to the surface. This is something football fans have been doing for some time, because immersion in football requires an ongoing acceptance (or dismissal) of the dangers to which players expose themselves on every play, in every game. This, too, has required constant system upgrades, as science teaches more about the sport, and the sport refines its game play, changing its appearance and texture in an effort to make it safer (although not safe, an impossible goal).
But as familiar as Monday night’s images were – the pained faces, the prayer circle, the fans, standing, uncertain, in their replica jerseys and Gameday costumes – they were also palpably heightened. This was worse. We all knew it, instinctively.
Yesterday came the very good news from doctors at the University of Cincinnati, where Hamlin has been treated since collapsing and being resuscitated on the field Monday night, that Hamlin has made significant gains. “It’s been a long and difficult road for the last three days,” Dr. William Knight said. “… He has made a pretty remarkable improvement.” UC doctors said that when Hamlin was first given the opportunity to communicate in writing, he wrote, “Did we win?” Dr. Timothy Pritts answered: “The answer is yes, Damar, you won the game of life.” Doctors also said that Hamlin is “neurologically intact,” and that his damaged lungs have begun to heal. Also significantly, they praised the on-field work of the Bills’ medical and training staffs for their performance under duress. Friday morning came further news that Hamlin’s breathing tube has been removed and that he has been able to speak with his family and even his teammates via FaceTime. In all, a series of extraordinarily uplifting updates.
Doctors also said that Hamlin’s longer term prognosis is unknown and will evolve over time. They said it is much too soon to know if he will play football again, although that doesn’t seem important right now.
Football has endured many tragedies and near tragedies. Players have been concussed and paralyzed. In 1971, long before the phrase “player safety” was part of the sport’s lexicon, Lions’ wide receiver Chuck Hughes, died on the field. An autopsy would reveal arterial blockage that heightened the impact of a blood clot. Generations of players have suffered immensely in the aftermath of their careers, due to both the orthopedic and neurological detritus of the sport. Writ large, this is widely described as the cost of playing a violent game. Drilling down further, keepers of the game on all levels have made genuine efforts in the last decade or more to reduce risk, although that risk will never reach zero and will never get close. We all know this, too.
In the coming weeks and months, we will surely learn much about Hamlin’s health both before and after his collision with Tee Higgins. Fans will hope to take solace in continued positive updates and perhaps in his return to full health, and they should, very much so. They will also use it to help cushion their own return to full-throated support of a game they love.
The larger question here is whether football simply returns to its baseline: A dangerous game with an immense fan base that reaches into nearly every American demographic and generates enormous revenue. Truly, our national pastime. Whether the endgame for this incident is a gigantic sigh of relief, or if something changes. Pause. Not something in the game itself, because there is very little left to change at this point. Rules have been tweaked to their breaking point; football is a rough game. (Here I’ll write something I have written before: Every fan needs to watch even one series of downs from an NFL or major college game, up close, to appreciate the level of size, speed, power, and commitment to every single hit. It is stunning, and your high school football career does not allow you to appreciate it. It is a different ecosystem altogether).
Not that something, but something else: A fresh level of appreciation for what we’re witnessing while sitting on our couch (or in the press box).
A story: On Nov. 3, 2007, I covered the United States’ Olympic Marathon Trials, which took place in New York City’s Central Park. The Trials were won by Ryan Hall, but the race is remembered much more for the death of 28-year-old Ryan Shay, who collapsed just over five miles into the race and was pronounced dead 40 minutes later at a city hospital. An autopsy showed that Shay had a pre-existing condition — an enlarged heart, with fibrosis (scarring); Shay knew this and had lived with it.
But what I remember most was reporting a story a few days later in which I talked to several other runners who knew Shay and ran in the race. Aside from their shock and sadness, which were very real, they openly questioned how Shay’s death might work its way into their psyches. Distance running is more complex than the general populace understands, but at its foundation is a trust that regardless of the pain, one cannot die, that pain is just pain. Ryan Shay died. Yes, he had those issues at the start. But in the aftermath of his passing, his peers found themselves questioning that foundational trust in their own bodies. I haven’t watched distance running with quite the same mind since.
I thought of this when I heard former Steelers safety Ryan Clark’s remarkable responses on ESPN later Monday evening. “The next time that we get upset at our favorite fantasy player, we should remember that these men are putting their lives on the line to live their dream and tonight Damar Hamlin’s dream became a nightmare not only for himself but for his family and his entire team,” Clark said.
NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith spoke to this Thursday: “… This is a business that is operated by humans, breathing humans. And they are people’s sons, their husbands, their fathers.”
And as Clark also told us Monday night: “Tonight we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly. A side of football that no one ever wants to see or never wants to admit exists.”
That side of football will continue to exist, just like distance runners in the 15 years since Ryan Shay died have continued to press their own limits. But a small ask: Some appreciation. Often over the years when I’ve written about player safety, concussions, rules changes, I’ve been flamed by readers who argue that players are well-compensated to accept the risks inherent in playing a dangerous game. And you know what? That’s true. But perhaps a little appreciation is in order, for the weight of that risk, game after game, day after day, minute after minute. These are superhuman athletes, but just humans, too. Today, they understand more fully than ever that they are also the entertainment, and the commodity that powers the football machine.
So maybe a small drop of empathy in exchange for all those hours of joy. Not just when a player lies in the hospital, but when he does not.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.