I was casually half-watching Monday Night Football last night when there was an injury timeout. Nothing unusual about that. After the commercial break, the player was still on the field. Another commercial break. This turned out to be an extraordinary event. In a very short time, no one cared about the game. All that mattered was the life and health of Damar Hamlin.
This might be the day that changed football.
For a few years, I've had this growing discomfort with football. I've always enjoyed the sport. I don't think I missed one game while I was in college. I had fantasy football teams for a few years (but I was not really good at it).
The sport has become more violent because athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster. They train, work out, and eat solely for the sake of football. Even the improved helmets and stricter enforcement of penalties--like roughing the passer--cannot stop serious injuries. Seems like there is a flag on every other play. Concussion protocols help prevent reinjuries, but players still get hammered.
But when you take a step back and really look at this sport, it can seem really strange. Here are grown men, using brute strength and careful strategy to push around other grown men. Rules govern the pushing and tackling, but it is inherently a violent sport. Coaches work to fire up their teams and get adrenalin pumping. Anger can be a powerful motivator.
These men willingly do this, and the professionals are paid handsomely for their trouble. But they put themselves in harm's way for our entertainment. We cheer on the hits. We marvel at the athleticism. A few years ago a friend told me that she would not watch the NFL anymore. Although she loved the sport, she felt like the players were gladiators and she could no longer be a party to the spectacle.
Neurologists tell us that the human mind does not develop a full understanding of risk until age 25. (It's no wonder that Olympic gymnasts are all younger than that.) Hamlin is 24. He, according to neurological science, does not yet have the capacity to evaluate the level of physical threat to his body.
But we cheer on these young men, because it's fun to watch.
Andrew Luck shocked the world of sports when he retired from the NFL before turning 30. Luke Kuechly did the same thing.
As Bengals and Bills stood in tearful, prayerful silence last night, surely they were thinking, "That could have been me." Maybe they saw for a moment how little football matters. In terms of world history, even the most monumental sports feats will be mere footnotes. In 100 years no one will care. But maybe they will care if Damar Hamlin survives.
It will be interesting to see if attitudes toward this sport change, among athletes or fans.
Last night's game will not soon be forgotten. But I expect we will still watch the Super Bowl.