NEW YORK – The harrowing scenes of Damar Hamlin falling on the pitch after cardiac arrest have made some fans realize once again the truth they always knew but hated to think about: football, a game with violence in its DNA, can go from thrilling and joyful to dark and tragic to blink of an eye.
Now that the Buffalo Bills quarterback remains in Critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital, fans like Max Serone reflect on their relationship with the sport they love.
Cherone, 24, like Hamlin, a school counselor in the Buffalo area who grew up minutes away from the Bills Stadium, attended games with his father “in preseason and 90 degrees or sub-zero degrees and snow” since childhood.
After settling in with two buddies to watch Monday’s high-stakes game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Cerone and his friends watched in horror when, just minutes into the game, Hamlin completed what appeared to be a routine tackle, quickly stood up, and then collapsed languidly, frighteningly leaning back on the ground, legs apart, motionless. They watched injured teammates sob, kneel and pray as medical staff struggled to resuscitate the 6-foot, 200-pound player. heart stopped.
“People sometimes look at players like they’re in a video game,” Cerone said, “like avatars and food for fantasy fan leagues.” “We watch them for fun and complain when they don’t play well. But these people are risking their lives every time they go out and put on pads.”
It is extremely rare for a player to go into cardiac arrest on the pitch, and Hamlin’s injury not necessarily related to football l, or even sports.
However, it happened right after the impact and was a stark reminder that humans are not designed to constantly crash into other people at high speed, as football requires. And for some fans with kids, it made them wonder if those kids should be allowed to play.
Like many fans interviewed after the game, Serone is not going to give up football anytime soon. But he definitely wants the NFL to continue to be more health and safety conscious, especially around head injuries.
Former fan Lori Goldberg made a different calculation.
Goldberg, a public relations professional who worked for a sports card company for years, says she has become disillusioned with sports over the past decade as she learned more about traumatic brain injury and the risks of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. the 2015 film Concussion, which starred Will Smith as a real-life doctor raising the CTE alarm, and the book on which it is based.
“I loved and miss football,” says Goldberg, 63, originally from Baltimore, where she grew up a Colts fan, and now from Marina del Rey, California. But she says, “I couldn’t watch anymore. I felt like I was watching gladiators, watching people sacrifice their lives. This is not ancient Rome… Watching this, it seems that we are exacerbating the problem.”
Mark Oldfield, a longtime Bengals fan, prefers to focus on the hope that tragic incidents on the pitch will lead to saving improvements.
“I feel like this is going to be one of those moments that will really make football better,” says Oldfield, 59, a teacher at Springmire Elementary School in Cincinnati and a Bengals season ticket holder for the past 36 years.
Oldfield was sitting in the stadium, three rows from the north end zone, when Hamlin took the hit. He was also at a recent game when Miami Dolphin quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a frightening concussion during a game, causing him to pass out and be thrown out of bounds.
Oldfield hopes Tagaowiloa will not play again this season. But he notes that there has been steady progress in combating the risk of traumatic brain injury, albeit not enough. “If you see growth, that’s good,” he says.
Khalil Springs, also 24, a Bills fan who works in real estate in Buffalo, agrees that the sport is slowly improving in terms of safety. “The game has changed, you can see it in tackles when they try to give up a little. People know about it and maybe that’s all you can do in such a brutal sport. It will only get better.”
More broadly, Springs is confident that “something good will come out of this.” fundraising for a children’s toy disc, which now exceeds $7 million.
Like many others, Jason Fonda believes that the Hamlin episode will lead to some positive changes in player safety. He notes that one small change has already happened: The youth team he coaches sent an email the morning after the NFL incident demanding that coaches be certified to use a defibrillator.
“How can we digest this?” asks the Foundation, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Nanuet, New York. “People who oppose violent sports will say, ‘I told you, this is terrible, why is football even allowed? Other people will say: “This is an isolated case, and we will never see this again in our lives.”
He himself belongs more to the latter category as a fan, coach, father and player in his youth. He says the huge increase in concussion awareness makes kids feel more secure, like his 11-year-old son who plays football (his three kids play multiple sports). The foundation says it told him, “You get one concussion and that’s it.”
If his son wanted to play in a college where “massive people” run at you, “this conversation would be difficult for me,” he adds.
In some parts of the country, reverence for the sport can lead to a condescending attitude towards football for young children, says Joel Fields of Biloxi, Mississippi, who founded the Gulf Coast Sharks youth football club in 2021.
“We’ll be playing teams from all over the country, but we’re playing mostly southern teams, and we’ve seen… five- and six-year-old football teams,” Fields said. He doesn’t think kids should play tackle football until they’re eight and hopes Hamlin’s injury will remind coaches to teach kids safer ways to play.
For each parent, the calculation is different. Kim Staley, a mother from Kansas City and an account manager for a pharmaceutical company, is a big football fan herself — “youth, high school, college, NFL, Monday night, Thursday night, Saturday and Sunday,” she jokes. “I’m SUCH a mom.” She was horrified by Hamlin’s injury and is praying for his recovery, as is her son Hunter, 17.
But, says Staley, 55, “I wouldn’t stop my kid from playing over this.” She says too little is known about what caused Hamlin’s collapse, and that the children of friends in other sports were more injured than her son was in football. Hunter hopes to play in college. “I support him playing the sport he loves,” Staley says. Until he tells me otherwise.
Lisa Bertin made a similar appeal to her son Deon, also 17, who has been playing since he was five and also wants to play in college.
“It was definitely amazing, terrible,” Bertin said of Hamlin’s injury. “When it comes to life and death, everything stops. The rest doesn’t matter.” She was glad the game was cancelled. But she says there are still questions to be answered: “Was it because of a tackle, because of football, or because of something underlying ?
Bertin, 55, a Kansas City nurse, says head injuries, which are much more common, are of more concern.
But either way, she says, “You just don’t live in fear. My son wants to play football.” And as a fan, she says she stays true: “I know it’s a rough sport. But I think it brings people together.”
AP journalist Michael Goldberg of Jackson, Mississippi contributed to this report.
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