Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is breathing on his own and football fans are breathing a sigh of relief. The broader public, hanging on the story of a player needing nine minutes of CPR on the field just to avoid death, are breathing a sigh of relief. At the NFL offices on Park Avenue in New York, league officials are also breathing a sigh of relief but perhaps not for the same reasons as everyone else.
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s NFL is an economic leviathan, by far the most popular sports league in the United States. This is measured in television ratings, social media interactions, betting and in the murky, depersonalized world of fantasy sports. Yet for all its popularity as perhaps the last gasp of a uniting, monocultural force in the United States, football also exists on a rickety foundation.
This is a sport that fits hand in glove with a nation awash in violence. It proudly presents a brutal, three-hour, highly commodified spectacle for popular consumption. The players have their faces and bodies hidden under a mountain of equipment and a helmet. The league delivers — with the tagline “football is family” — an image of violence without consequence, or at least violence suffered by largely anonymous, overwhelmingly Black athletes who sacrifice their bodies and minds week after week.
When players are hurt or badly concussed, they go under an injury tent on the sidelines to be observed by medical professions, out of sight and mind from the viewing public. When a player goes down, the TV coverage cuts to a car, gambling or erectile dysfunction commercial until the game resumes.
Violence without consequence.
That’s what makes Hamlin’s injury a threat to the sport. America and the world saw the consequences of the “game” in sharp detail, as ESPN, to its credit, kept everyone’s eyes mostly on the field as Hamlin’s life was saved in front of more than 65,000 fans and a national TV audience.
We all saw it so starkly: the ambulance rolling out onto the field, players crying and a league that appeared willing to get them back on task. The NFL denies what ESPN announcer Joe Buck reported was in the works: a business as usual resumption of play after a sadistically short five-minute break.
As Commissioner Goodell twiddled his thumbs for an intolerable hourlong “temporary suspension” of play, it was clearly the players and coaches Sean McDermott and Zac Taylor who restored sanity to the situation, demanding that the players’ humanity be recognized and insisting that the show not go on.
Goodell only commented on what happened days later, calling for the post-season schedule to be reorganized while describing the last week as a set of “extraordinary situations.” But while Hamlin’s near-death experience was indeed extraordinary, there is nothing new in players giving up their lives, giving up their minds and giving up their futures in the name of a sport they love that will never love them back.
The more fans lose the ignorance about how players suffer for this sport, the more the joy could drain. And that threatens not just today’s bottom line but the future popularity of the league like nothing in its history.
What’s so perilous for the NFL is that it’s not just the league that’s under the microscope. It’s not just Goodell, who once again is hearing calls for his ouster. It’s the very sport of football itself. It’s youth football. It’s high school football. It’s college football. It’s the decisions that families make about whether to put their kids in the gladiatorial pipeline.
The NFL has survived scandals in the recent past — concussions, violence against women and race issues — and it hasn’t slowed down the league for a nanosecond. Perhaps this is different.
Play resumed Saturday and Damar Hamlin will live. But the reckoning with what took place on and off the field last week isn’t over. And the sport of football’s future has never looked more imperiled.
Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation and producer of the film “Behind the Shield: the Power and Politics of the NFL.”