On January 2, ESPN aired the first Monday Night Football broadcast of 2023. The Cincinnati Bengals were hosting the Buffalo Bills in a game that could have potentially earned one of the two squads a first-round bye in the playoffs. A lot was on the line that night. It doesn’t always work out this way, but this is the type of drama NFL schedule makers dream of at the beginning of every season—two Super Bowl frontrunners battling in a crucial meeting to end the regular season’s penultimate week.
All of that became meaningless, however, at 8:56 p.m. ET. After making a tackle on a routine play, Bills safety Damar Hamlin stood up, wobbled for a second, and collapsed. It was a moment that shocked the country and demanded the concern of millions. The night began with the prospect of a thrilling matchup between AFC juggernauts and ended with a man in critical condition, fighting for his life. As the NFL went back to business as usual over the weekend, complete with tributes to Hamlin, it might be worthwhile to never let go of what viewers may have felt that night. I know one thing that crossed my mind was, is this violent and barbaric—albeit cerebral and beautiful—sport worth it? Should American football still exist?
Hamlin’s injury, by the looks of it, was a freak accident. According to Dr. Barry Maron, a leading cardiologist, what likely happened was a case of something called commotio cordis, a very rare injury that disrupts the heart’s rhythm, causing the injured party to lose consciousness and enter cardiac arrest. For this to happen, someone has to take a blow to the chest during a precise 30-millisecond window during the heartbeat. ESPN noted the National Institutes of Health estimates there are usually “fewer than 30 cases nationwide every year.” Even in its scarcity, commotio cordis is extremely dangerous and can result in death if the heartbeat isn’t restored immediately. That night, when Bills assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington administered CPR on Hamlin, it’s safe to assume he saved his life.
According to a 2009 study, 60 percent of reported commotio cordis cases involve sports. The people at the highest risk are boys between ages four and 18 playing youth baseball, because their underdeveloped bodies have increased flexibility in the chest. What happened to Hamlin was rare and could honestly happen to anybody—on a football field or elsewhere. But it still puts the NFL on notice for how it deals with player safety and the inevitability of player injuries.
There are a couple of ways one can develop the repetitive head trauma necessary to cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Victims of domestic violence and military personnel who’ve served in war zones have been linked to the degenerative brain disease. However, the most common subjects are athletes who’ve participated in contact sports like hockey or martial arts, and the most widespread of those is American football. As of now, science cannot conclusively diagnose a living person with CTE, but medical professionals can still make a presumptive diagnosis based on common symptoms and a neurological exam. Those common symptoms can include mood swings, loss of motor functions, memory loss, and suicidal thoughts. When autopsies are conducted on the brains of deceased football players, the findings are alarming.
A 2017 study by JAMA observed brains from 202 former football players at three levels—high school, collegiate, and the NFL. The scientists found that 88 percent of them had CTE. Of the 111 former players autopsied who were physically gifted enough to reach the NFL, only one did not have CTE. That’s 99 percent. As with most studies, there are some caveats to this one. The data collected has a participation bias, but that does little to alter just how disturbing the numbers are. People who reach the highest levels of America’s most popular sport have a startlingly high chance to develop a disease that greatly diminishes the way their brains function and makes them a danger to themselves and others.
As previously stated, an official diagnosis for CTE cannot be given to living persons because the most accurate results come from an autopsied brain. But some observations only require common sense. If you see a kid covered in red bumps scratching themselves, you don’t really need a doctor to tell you they’ve got chicken pox or worse. A number of NFL alumni like Tony Dorsett have reported memory loss and mood swings, but those debilitating health concerns can take a turn for much worse. One such case involves Brian Price, a former defensive tackle who sprinted through an auto shop’s glass doors while distressed and doesn’t remember doing so. Some players have infamously resorted to acts of grave violence. Aaron Hernandez is one of the most well-known instances. Phillip Adams, a former cornerback, shot and killed six people before eventually turning the gun on himself. The easy thing to do is solely put the blame on Adams, but the reality is after a doctor studied his brain they found severe damage to his frontal lobe, which is linked to “violent, impulsive or explosive behavior,” and contributed to a “short fuse,” and “lack of self-control.” Dr. Ann McKee, the chief of neuropathology for the VA Boston Healthcare System who researched Adams’ brain, said, “his CTE pathology might have contributed to his abnormal behaviors, in addition to other physical, psychiatric, and psychosocial factors. His predominantly frontal lobe CTE pathology, which resulted in atrophy, or shrinkage, of the brain, was similar in severity to Aaron Hernandez.”
CTE is a serious issue that puts player’s lives—and those of everyone in their orbit—in jeopardy. The most common source of CTE, concussions, are nearly unavoidable in football. This is why the NFL has repeatedly tried to cover up the truth about their devastating effects. Only after widespread controversy has the league changed rules in an effort to mitigate head trauma. The numbers have dropped precipitously, but as long as there’s tackle football there will always be a risk of concussions. Still, the NFL can’t seem to rise to the occasion assessing concussions when they arise. The most discouraging spate of injuries to occur this NFL season was that of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa likely received two head injuries within four days, the second of which occurred during a primetime broadcast that saw a horrifying display of “fencing,” in which his fingers stiffened up and pointed in multiple directions. The latest concussion the quarterback suffered took place in the second quarter of a Week 16 showdown with Green Bay. Despite a devastating hit that saw Tagovailoa’s head slam against the ground, his concussion went undiagnosed and he finished the game, in which he performed poorly.
Concussions are just one of the many injuries players can suffer. On any given Sunday you may witness an injury so gruesome it looks like it belongs in a horror film. Limbs snap, contort, break, and poke out of skin. It’s brutal. It’s grotesque. It’s football. These injuries can have a lasting effect on a player’s quality of life and there are fights over retired players receiving adequate care for them.
Wes Welker is just one of many NFL alum who have been denied additional healthcare or disability benefits from the league. After making bank off ballers’ bodies, the NFL doesn’t take care of players well enough—and fights for its right not to. The league was hit with a $1 billion dollar settlement because it made racist, anti-Black adjustments in dementia evaluations of former players to avoid giving financial assistance to Black retirees. According to NPR, roughly 70 percent of the NFL’s active players and more than 60 percent of its living retirees are Black men.
So, should American tackle football be banned? Yes. Too many people are subjected to a horrific brain disease and other ailments as a direct result of this collision sport and the NFL is not an organization with the moral fortitude to deal with such a quandary. The shield might be the worst organization to deal with such a predicament; even Haliburton would prove itself a better steward of player health if put at the reins. But the thing about American football is, at its best, it makes a case for the zenith of entertainment. The 2021 season’s divisional round deserves an EGOT and its own corner in the Louvre. I’ll probably keep watching football even though I know it’s awful. I know one day it won’t exist anymore. That’s fine.
Football can’t survive, because the pipeline is thinning. Parents are less willing to let their kids suit up. I know that if I ever have kids, along with being “picky eaters,” that’s one thing they’re definitely not gonna do. If I’m still here to witness when the book on the gladiator sport is closed, I’ll pour out a little liquor and just go on about my day, with clear eyes and a full heart.
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