On Monday night, millions of people watched a terrifying scene unfold in real time. Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old safety for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed and went into cardiac arrest after making what appeared to be a routine tackle in a nationally televised N.F.L. game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hamlin’s medical emergency, the specifics of which have not been fully made public, may have been a rare and unlucky event. But in a sport where high-speed collisions are a feature, not a bug, there is risk of serious injury every single time the football is snapped. And yet the games play on. Today’s newsletter will explain why inherent danger persists in a sport that is interwoven with American culture.
In 15 years of covering the N.F.L., I’ve stood on the sidelines for multiple games. Watching up close, I have never gotten over how hard the hits are. As a simple matter of physics, the combination of the size and speed of professional football players means that the force of their collisions can be akin to that of a world-class sprinter running into a brick wall.
The N.F.L. has trumpeted its efforts to make the game safer, particularly over the past decade. It has made rule changes that discourage dangerous on-field tactics such as leading with the head, instituted a protocol to diagnose and treat concussions and positioned about 30 medical professionals at games to respond to injuries or emergencies. The scope of these measures, though, shows how the dangers of the sport can only be mitigated, not eliminated.
Ed Hochuli, a longtime N.F.L. referee who has worked hundreds of games, spoke candidly after he retired in 2018 about what he had witnessed on the field. In every game, he said, there were “a half a dozen times” when he worried: “Oh, my god, how’s that guy going to get up off the ground? He’s got to be dead.”
The N.F.L. often seems mired in turmoil yet impervious to it. In recent years, it has confronted accusations of racial discrimination by Black coaches, allegations of workplace misconduct at a flagship franchise and posthumous diagnoses in more than 300 former players of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is associated with repeated blows to the head. Yet the league remains on track to meet Commissioner Roger Goodell’s goal of earning $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027.
Even this week, as the N.F.L. faces one of its worst crises in decades, it is also preparing for the next slate of games this weekend, which is going ahead as scheduled. Players and coaches have jobs to do. The N.F.L.’s business depends on it.
The simple fact of where Hamlin collapsed is a reminder of how quickly we move on from the startling violence in America’s most popular sports league. On the same field just three months ago, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was taken off on a stretcher after his head was slammed against the turf. He missed the next two games with a concussion. Days before, he had sustained another head hit. Then, in a Christmas Day game against the Green Bay Packers, he suffered another brain injury.
About five years ago on the same field, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury while making a tackle that not only ended his career but required him to learn to walk again. Unlike the game on Monday night, that one continued after a delay.
What happens in the N.F.L. is amplified more than almost any other American cultural institution. Hamlin’s medical emergency was front-page news. A GoFundMe page he originally set up for a holiday toy drive serving his hometown near Pittsburgh has received more than 200,000 donations since Monday, raising nearly $7 million. President Biden, who said yesterday that he spoke to Hamlin’s parents, was asked whether he thought the N.F.L. had become too dangerous. He said no.
Despite the live horror of Hamlin’s collapse, the N.F.L.’s staying power doesn’t seem to be in question. The league’s media partners collectively pay around $12 billion a season to show games because they bring in such large audiences.
We tune in because we know we may see rare athletic feats, an arc of redemption or an odds-defying comeback. Just as plausible, though, is that a player will be seriously injured. From time to time, as on Monday night, we are reminded of that uncomfortable duality. And then, the N.F.L. machine rolls on — and counts on viewers going along with it.
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Farewell to ‘Stomp’
Since it arrived in the East Village in 1994, “Stomp,” the wordless percussion spectacle of twirling, tapping, sweeping and banging, has been a mainstay of New York culture. After nearly three decades, the production is closing for good.
“Stomp” was a natural fit in the East Village of the 1990s, where it lived alongside the Blue Man Group and rock clubs like CBGB and Brownies. But even as it became a phenomenon — with an appearance at the Olympics, a spoof on “The Simpsons” and performances in 45 countries — it never outgrew its neighborhood.
“I’m a little bit sad,” Steve McNicholas, the co-creator of the show, said. “We were part of the landscape of the Village, and it’s a shame to say goodbye to that.”
For more: Readers and Times critics shared their memories of the show.