My book to be published later this year by ECW Press is now titled Without Helmets or Shoulder Pads: The American Way of Death in Football Conditioning. Here’s the publisher’s announcement late last year. We’ll have the cover image shortly.
Damar Hamlin’s dreadful collapse: Just another reason to defund football
(originally published on January 5 at https://www.salon.com/2023/01/05/damar-hamlins-collapse-just-another-reason-to-defund-football/)
The NFL star’s televised cardiac arrest shocked the nation. It’s one of many severe health risks players may face
The catastrophe of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, which caused the unprecedented suspension of an NFL game, brought home for a national TV audience the variegated harms of America’s most popular sport. (At this writing, Hamlin is in critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital. He reportedly had to be resuscitated twice, first on the field and later at the hospital.)
Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest after a blow to the chest while making a fairly routine tackle. It may have been caused by a condition called commotio cordis. Doctors are still assessing whether there were other contributing factors for Hamlin. Similar cardiac events have taken the lives of at least 12 football players at all levels, according to data assembled by Scott Anderson, the retired head athletic trainer of the University of Oklahoma’s football team. The most recent was Michael T. Ellsessar, a 16-year-old high school player in Sutton, Massachusetts, in 2010.
There are multiple observations one could make about the cold-hearted calculus of the NFL and football world. Some of them surround the domino effect on the league’s TV and potential playoff schedules from suspending the game after Hamlin’s Buffalo Bills teammates and the opposing Cincinnati Bengals players were obviously in no state to continue playing.
To these, I add something I saw on my feed of the ESPN broadcast, via a California cable system: As studio commentators were vamping during the long delay while Hamlin was being treated on the field — in what felt like a sports-world variation on TV’s JFK assassination vigil — a pop-up message came on my screen. I don’t know if it was really part of the ESPN production or, perhaps, some kind of creepy techno prank out of “Black Mirror.” The screen overlay informed viewers that all gambling action that night was being waived in the wake of the Hamlin tragedy. The message was fleeting and I didn’t capture the full text or the company purportedly behind it (it was not DraftKings). I assumed this would leave a footprint on social media, but so far I have not located one.
Getting back to football and death and near-death … A cynic might say that it would have been the football world’s worst nightmare if Hamlin’s terrible injury had resulted not from a single, discrete hit, but rather from an accumulation of hits, a flashback to an earlier collision or collisions that had caused, for example, a brain bleed.
In all the current fashionable — and, in my opinion, superficial — attention to concussions, the viewing public remains little aware that the phenomenon of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) does not require a concussion or concussions per se. It can also result from multiple sub-concussive hits.
As terrifying as what happened to Hamlin was, a cardiac event might have seemed extraneous to football. In 1971, Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack during an NFL game. If commotio cordis was the cause of Hamlin’s collapse, though, his cardiac arrest would also be tied to the trauma of violent contact. So Hamlin’s injury could have been something of a “hybrid” bad case.
It remains to be seen what lasting lessons are drawn from this tragedy in terms of the participation levels in football, all the way down to high school, middle school and pee-wee leagues. While the nation’s conversation proceeds over the libertarian limits of ultra-professional gladiators who literally risk their lives to entertain the masses, the use of our public schools, public fields and other subsidies to support this $15 billion-a-year industry requires a different perspective. Football does not need to be banned, and given its gravity-defying popularity, cannot be banned. But, like cigarette smoking or any other socially acceptable activity that damages public health, it ought to be downsized.
Every year in this country, several kids drop dead just from maniacal football coaches’ over-the-top conditioning drills, which are mostly performative exercises in “toughness.” People aren’t just dying from concussions. They are suffering lifelong neurological, orthopedic or internal organ damage of various kinds, at tremendous cost to public health, lost productivity and metrics of substance abuse and domestic violence. Counting on Damar Hamlin’s gruesome and tragic collapse to change these dynamics is probably a bad bet.
Football-industrial complex makes a rapid recovery: From horror to guilt to inspiration (originally published on January 11 at https://www.salon.com/2023/01/11/football-industrial-complex-makes-a-rapid-recovery-from-horror-to-guilt-to-inspiration/)
A man nearly died playing football and we had a moment of introspection about the sport. Then we flipped the script
The safety crises of football world have a particular morphology. But before Damar Hamlin the cycle had never played out with such intensity and immediacy. In a span of barely 100 hours, the voices of the chattering class went from narcissistic reflection about fandom’s complicity in the sport’s recreational violence to a collective clapback at the remarkable triumph of humanity. In other words, we went from “down with football” to “up with people” in record time — and without skipping a beat on the NFL’s regular season and playoff calendar.
As nearly everyone knows, in a game on January 2, Hamlin, a 24-year-old defensive back for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed on the field of Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati after making a routine tackle. His heart stopped, in an event that was improbable but not unprecedented: a likely case of commotio cordis, cardiac arrest triggered by a blow to the chest.
Hamlin’s heartbeat was revived by emergency medical personnel on the field and he was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, unconscious and in critical condition. The NFL bowed to the distraught state of both his Bills teammates and their opponents on the Cincinnati Bengals and suspended the game. Ultimately the league canceled it altogether, which required jury-rigged adjustments to the playoff structure. (That game would have had consequences for home-field advantage.) Nothing like that had ever happened before. The only on-field death in NFL history was in 1971, when Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions suffered a fatal heart attack while jogging back to the huddle. On that occasion, the Lions and the Chicago Bears sucked it up and played on. But Hughes wasn’t in the prime-time glare of ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
General commentary on the pages of opinion-makers like the New York Times and the Washington Post could be summed up this way: I love watching football, but the gruesomeness of the Hamlin collapse has me pondering whether I’m an enabler of carnage.
But that sort of fretting didn’t continue for long: Hamlin’s initially grave condition improved dramatically. By last Sunday, he was conscious and communicating with doctors and family members. The Bills won their emotional final regular season game at home, against the New England Patriots. A game ball was awarded to one of the trainers who had helped save Hamlin’s life just six days earlier.
Once again the NFL flipped the script, and did so with great skill and — in all fairness — by making the right minute-by-minute decisions. Then again, it’s pretty easy to pull off this feat in a society sated only by bread and circuses.
Hamlin himself makes a sympathetic protagonist, now almost universally beloved: a talented young player, apparently liked and respected by teammates, opponents, coaches and fans. Although it’s too early to assess his long-term prognosis, his playing days are likely over. He can still expect a future career as an NFL ambassador, TV talking head and all-purpose source of inspiration. That will start with his disposition of the $9 million (at this writing) that has poured into a crowd-sourced charity set up earlier in his career to support children’s toy drives.
So this really is a feel-good story, at least up to a point. What is lost in all this, yet again, is anything close to a full consideration of what the cumulative forms of football harm mean in terms of public health.
So far as I can find in my survey of hot takes, not a single voice at any major outlet has been raised, in any focused way, on how this near-miss catastrophe could be turned toward downsizing the massive public school and public facility subsidies, hiding in plain sight, for the NFL’s $15 billion-a-year gladiatorial enterprise. Every year, from high schools all the way down to Pop Warner little league programs, amateur boys are maimed and killed in this blood sport’s feeder systems. Some even die in the preseason heat from their coaches’ ill-judged extreme conditioning drills, before a single block or tackle in anger.
On Monday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a former Harvard football player and WWE performer whose career was curtailed by traumatic brain injury (TBI). Nowinski has done much to raise awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and his portfolio includes advocating that youth football be downsized. But here he “left the ball on the ground,” as we say when a football player fumbles. That essay was headlined “Football Is Deadly, but Not for the Reasons You Think.” Perhaps unconsciously doing the industry’s PR cleanup for it, Nowinski decided that the most important message of the moment was to make clear that what happened to Hamlin was an outlier.
Nowinski hasn’t responded to my email praising his activism but questioning his message on this occasion. To be clear about my own criticisms of the safety moves touted by Nowinski and others, mostly from an insider industry perspective, I’ve come to believe that even the conversation surrounding TBI and CTE (football’s most dramatic and photogenic health deficits) inadvertently builds a public education bridge to nowhere. At the end of the day, Football World and its patrons appear quite content to absorb repeated anecdotes about how football kills the brain — preferably, that of a beloved (or despised, or controversial) celebrity. Who did you say was playing in the wild card round this weekend?
Football’s problem isn’t the rules, the equipment, or the medical care: This sport kills (originally published on January 14 at https://www.salon.com/2023/01/14/footballs-problem-isnt-the-rules-the-equipment-or-the-care-this-sport/)
Damar Hamlin’s near-death experience should teach us a lesson, but we haven’t learned it yet: This game is deadly
One month and a day before Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin came frighteningly close to becoming the second in-game fatality in NFL history, he was ejected from the Amazon Prime Thursday night game for an illegal hit on New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. See it for yourself on YouTube. Hamlin, a defensive safety, blasted Meyers helmet-to-helmet, preventing a touchdown catch in the end zone. As everyone reading this undoubtedly knows, on the aborted Jan. 2 edition of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” Hamlin made a clean tackle against a Cincinnati Bengals receiver, and then collapsed seconds later, likely from commotio cordis, or percussion-induced cardiac arrest.
Dirty-shmirty. Clean-shmean. Football is deadly. It was designed to be deadly. The clock isn’t the only thing that gets “killed” during the two-minute drill.
I juxtapose these two plays in Hamlin’s recent career to underscore the point — which was made properly neither in the initial horrified media reaction nor in the feel-good sequel — that “making football safer” is an illusion. For every band-aid fix of the rules, there’s a Newtonian equal and opposite reaction, a cosmic game of life-and-death Whack-a-Mole. In the second Hamlin play above, he was dutifully following the recently emphasized “heads up” tackling doctrine (which is already almost always impossible to execute at game speed). The result left him unconscious on the field, without a pulse, seconds or minutes from death.
As I’ve reported previously, commotio cordis is not an everyday occurrence in football, but it happens, and it was bound to play out grotesquely, sooner or later, in an NFL prime-time game. But the gatekeepers of phony commercial solutions to existential violence — such as better helmets, no more effective than better mousetraps — want us to focus on only one aspect of football harm. I call this demimonde of deceit and self-deceit “Concussion Inc.”
There have been at least a dozen football deaths, below the professional level, from chest-trauma cardiac events. The classic Journal of the American Medical Association article on the syndrome was published in 2002. Lead author Barry Maron, a prominent cardiologist who maintains a registry of known death cases, also chronicled deaths that involved incidental and intuitively sub-lethal contact (such as a teacher who was elbowed in the chest the wrong way while breaking up a playground fight). But a vast majority of such fatalities occurred in sports, including, of course, from chest blows in football.
In the very first episode of Mad Men, Jon Hamm’s antihero protagonist Don Draper, an advertising agency creative executive circa 1960, laments to his mistress that he’s out of tricks for softening the image of his tobacco company client: “The whole safer cigarette thing is over. No more doctors, no more testimonials, no more cough-free, soothes-your-T-zone, low-tar, low-nicotine, filter-tip. Nothing. All I have is a crush-proof box, and four out of five dead people smoke your brand.”
Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys: Football = tobacco. There should be no more new age hit-sensor helmets for unethical experimentation on high school guinea pigs and crash test dummies. No more rules-evolving, geometrically impossible positioning of heads on tackles, on pain of penalty or disqualification or fine or suspension. No more “roughing the passer” coddling of our favorite quarterbacks. No more moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line just to ensure more contact-free touchbacks and fewer kamikaze-squad collisions. No more keeping the clock running after a guy goes out of bounds, just so slightly fewer deadly plays can be shoehorned into a three-hour game with a 60-minute clock.
And for God’s sake, in the wake of the Hamlin catastrophe in Cincinnati earlier this month, no more smoke signals to the future contractors of Concussion Inc. to start developing a better protective pad for the precordium (the area in front of the heart). Players are already armored up the wazoo, and the only thing that has accomplished is to give them a false sense of being bulletproof.
Few people realize this, but boxing’s transition from bare-knuckles to gloves made the sport far more lethal. Padded gloves protect the hand inside them more than the head it hits, and the diminished fear of broken hands made punches harder, faster and more confident, worsening the damage at the other end.
As the lyrics of “The Skeleton Dance” inform us, “The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone.” The problem of football won’t be solved by changes on the periphery. The problem of football lethality is football. The truly dangerous aspect of the sport is playing it.
Fundamentally, football players are killed or maimed not by cranial or vertebral or neurological or orthopedic damage; nor do they die in conditioning drills because of asthma, exertional heatstroke or exertional sickling. They are killed by football itself, by its unchecked purchase on the (mostly male) soul of this particular precinct of American exceptionalism.
Since the human race has never been able to legislate stupid, we should just play on. But at least let’s get our public schools and public fields out of the business of blood sport.