We love giving ourselves pats on the back, and there have been plenty of those in the wake of the heart attack suffered by the Buffalo Bills’ 24-year-old defensive back Damar Hamlin during that game in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago.
Rightfully, the main kudos went to the medical personnel who were Johnny-on-the-spot to render aid to the young man. National Football League games are superbly set up for that sort of thing and the response was excellent. If someone is to have a heart attack an NFL field is the perfect place for it. I can think of nowhere else save a hospital ER where help would be so close and effective.
The NFL itself came out looking well, if only because it did the obvious things that were appropriate in that sort of situation. The game at hand was cancelled, albeit after a bit of dithering, and no play-over that would have knocked the rest of the schedule on its ear was mandated. The league loves complexity so some “maybe” scenarios involving neutral-field playoff games were tossed in, but if we’re lucky they’ll be avoided.
We fans received plaudits for not demanding that the show go on regardless. At the stadium respect was shown for the occasion and concern for the victim’s condition was then and later manifested abundantly. As it turned out Hamlin was a community-minded person whose toys-for-kids project was buoyed by an outpouring of funds as he recovered.
At the risk of spoiling the party, though, I think it should be pointed out that the main lesson apparently drawn from the episode was the wrong one. In classic overstatement, the Arizona Republic declared in a headline it engendered “A Seminal Moment” for how we regard sports, but in fact sudden death or catastrophic injury remain rare on our big-time fields of play, struck-by-lightning occurrences that happen once every several generations.
Indeed, one reasonably might ask if Hamlin’s heart attack should be blamed on football. The tackle that preceded it was unremarkable and would have gone unremarked if not for its result. One interpretation was that it involved a sharp blow to the chest that upset his heart’s cycle, but an underlying condition might have been involved that further investigation could uncover. If someone suffers a heart attack on the tennis court should it be counted as a tennis injury?
Only twice have big-league American athletes died as an immediate result of a playing-field injury, and neither involved football: Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians succumbed after having been hit on the head by a pitch in a 1920 baseball game and Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars after striking his head on the ice following a check in a 1968 hockey game. Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions suffered a fatal heart attack in a 1971 NFL game after a play in which he wasn’t involved. His death later was ascribed to an advanced case of arteriosclerosis.
Football is a dangerous sport but ranks well behind others as an immediate cause of death. Besides boxing, which aims to injure, in most risk are thoroughbred-racing jockeys, who are killed at a rate of more than one a year and whose serious-injury stats are cataclysmic. When the great jockey Laffit Pincay retired after a suffering a broken neck in a spill, it was reported he’d sustained 11 broken collar bones, 10 broken ribs, two spinal fractures, two punctured lungs and two broken thumbs, among other things, in a 30-plus-year career.
The real danger in football isn’t in any “big bang” but in the sometimes-muted bang, bang, bang of everyday play, in practice sessions as well as in games. That the effects of such injuries were cumulative and often delayed long was suspected and finally made clear as a result of 2005 and 2006 papers by Dr. Bennet Omalu, then of the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, coroners’ office. Following examinations of the premature deaths of Pittsburgh Steelers’ players Mike Webster and Terry Long, he found evidence of a protein buildup in their brains called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, similar to that of much-older victims of Alzheimer’s Disease. In sports the condition formerly had been associated mainly with boxers.
Subsequent autopsies of the brains of more than 200 former footballers by Boston University showed the disease to be common among that group. One recent study showed that ex-NFLers in their 50s were 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than men in the general population.
The crunch and grind of football, plus the explosion in the body weights of many of the men who compete at its highest level, have had other unfortunate, long-term results. Present and former NFL players have been shown to have 3.5 times more Parkinson’s disease, three times the rate of arthritis and 2.5 times more cardiac disease than other men. Opioid addiction, stemming from years of gulping pain killers to cope with football’s ordinary bruises and sprains, is frequent among the recently retired. Visit any NFL locker room after a game and you’ll see men creeping around like those 30 years older.
After an initial period of denial the NFL has recognized those truths and acted on them. On the gridiron it has improved helmet design, instituted concussion protocols and made it easier for injured players to seek their own medical diagnoses and treatment. It’s reportedly paid out more than $1 billion in additional benefits to ex-players coping with their game’s ravages.
None of that, however, changes the fact that football is a gladiatorial sport, one that should come with a warning label. Players should play, and we should watch, with that in mind.