Discover more from educated guesses
Are you ready for some football?
Is America's most popular sport worth the human carnage that it leaves in its wake?
On Monday, January 2, 2023, I tuned in to watch the Buffalo Bills take on the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football like countless others around the country. A lot was on the line. The game had huge playoff implications. Being a huge football fan, I had been waiting for this game all day. I ordered Indian food, bought a bottle of wine and tuned in expecting to see a great game.
Just a few moments into the game though, I found myself in tears. Damar Hamlin, a 24 year old back-up safety for the Buffalo Bills was in the middle of performing a routine tackle on Cincinnati wide receiver Tee Higgins, when Higgins, who was running with the ball after completing a pass from Joe Burrow, lowered his right shoulder anticipating Hamlin’s tackle and made direct contact with his chest. Hamlin reacted normally, quickly standing up as any player would. As he attempted to fix his face mask, he immediately collapsed and went unconscious on live television in front of millions of viewers. He laid motionless. Trainers from both teams ran to help Damar. Suffering from a cardiac arrest, Hamlin was down for almost 20 minutes and required an automated external defibrillator (AED) and CPR just to regain a pulse.
In a panic I called a close friend who was an NFL wide receiver at the time. I told him to tune into the game. While the players surrounded Hamlin to give him privacy. I asked my friend what he thought was happening. I’ll never forget what he said next.
“One of two things are going to happen. He is either going to die on that field and it will change the game forever or he is going to live and they’re going to make him into a martyr. Create t-shirts, Gofundme’s, and call it a comeback story, completely negating the fact that a 24 year old needed to be revived on the field.”
Eight months, a million “love for Damar tee shirts”, and countless thoughts and prayers later and here we are, celebrating Demar Hamlin’s “heroic” return to the football field. It feels as if the entire country is suffering from collective amnesia. How can we so quickly forget that a 24 year old had almost died before our very eyes less than a year earlier?
Just Saturday night University of Colorado’s 20 year old dual offensive/defensive player Travis Hunter suffered a lacerated liver after being hit by a Colorado State University player during the most watched game in college football history. He then posted a video stating:
“It’s football at the end of the day, stuff like that’s gonna happen. I mean what’re you supposed to do? It’s football, something bad is gonna happen on the field sooner or later, you just gotta get up and fight again. That's what I was tryna do. Get up and fight. Good thing the doctors stopped me because if there was no doctors there I still would’ve been out there playing”
He seems to share the same sentiments as the rest of the football fanatic community. “It’s football at the end of the day, stuff like that’s gonna happen” But at what point are we a part of the problem? At what point do we say this has gone too far? Young men, mostly black men, are risking their lives for the prospect of money and for our pure entertainment and we as a society remain blissfully ignorant, or worse ,willfulluy apathetic, because hey that stuff happens.
Luckily, Damar Hamlin was able to recover but unfortunately some people weren’t as lucky. Charles “Chuck” Frederick Hughes was an NFL wide receiver from 1967-1971. He was a 4th round pick for the Philadelphia Eagles. On October 24, 1971 Hughes entered the game for the Detroit Lions against the Chicago Bears. With 1:02 left on the clock, Hughes stood up and then suddenly collapsed. Sound familiar? Instead his fate was slightly different than Damar Hamlins’. At 5:34pm he was pronounced dead. He was 28 years old. He is currently the only NFL player to die in the middle of a game.
Chuck Hughes' fate was an extreme case probably due to preexisting conditions but nonetheless football has had lasting deteriorating effects on its players. According to a study at the Boston University chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) center, 91.7% of the brains studied from deceased former NFL players present with CTE.
CTE is a type of dementia suspected to be caused by repeated head injuries. It causes death of nerve cells in the brain, known as degeneration. CTE progressively gets worse over time and there is no cure. It is characterized by memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulsivity, paranoia, anxiety and poor overall executive function. It is only able to be diagnosed during autopsy. Many current and former players live with it and will never know until it's too late.
Aaron Hernandez was once a coveted tight end who played 3 seasons for the New England Patriots. He caught touchdown passes from Tom Brady who by many is considered to be the greatest quarterback of all time. However Hernandez is notorious not for his football career but for his arrest and conviction for the murder of Odin Lloyd in 2013.
Aaron Hernandez is one of the most famous cases of CTE. He was 27 years old when he committed suicide in his prison cell in 2017. According to the Boston University CTE lab, at the time of his death Aaron Hernandez had stage 3 CTE (stage 4 being the most severe) and they had never seen such severe brain damage in a brain younger than 46 years old. Aaron Hernandez’s story was a tragedy but the real tragedy is a 27 year old with dementia. But hey “it’s football, this kind of stuff happens.”
Chris Henry, a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2005 - his death in 2009 was the first active NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. Notably, unlike Aaron Hernandez and the average NFL player he has never suffered a documented concussion. However, he was a 26 year old living with dementia. Can we really blame the concussions? Maybe it’s just the repeated head to head impact on a weekly basis? Maybe it’s just the violent nature of football itself. In the past two weeks since the NFL season has started, major stars have been ruled out for the season due to gruesome injuries such as New York Jets super bowl champion quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, Cleveland Brown Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb and New Orleans Saints NFL rushing touchdown leading running back Jamaal Williams.
The violent nature isn’t only affecting the active players but mostly severely affecting the retired players. Many retired NFL players are currently looking for healthcare and coverage to aid in their current ailments as a consequence of 20+ years of competitive head to head impact. There weren’t as many rules in the 20th century to protect players and the helmets weren’t as equipped to deal with impact.
The average NFL player will make on average $860,000 a year as opposed to the average NBA salary of 9.37 million dollars a year. With the average NFL career being 3.3 years, this money simply isn’t enough to cover medical expenses for years of treatment for degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, and undiagnosed CTE. After an eye opening conversation with DJ Johnson, a retired NFL cornerback who played from 1989 - 1996 for the Steelers, Falcons and Cardinals, I began to read as many articles as I could about sports related concussions, CTE and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
Although I had originally decided to research the effects of strokes on the brain, I have now decided to pursue a PhD focused on helping these players who suffer from brain injuries when they are alive. I recently had a conversation with the wife of a former college football player. She told me,
“My husband played college football and suffered several concussions, some that caused him to be unconscious for hours at a time. He asked me the day we got married if I had heard of CTE? I told him a little bit. He said I'm 99% sure I have it. Are you prepared to deal with that for the rest of our lives? I told him I loved him in sickness and in health but I couldn’t imagine that 15 years later. Here I am, dealing with it, and taking care of my husband as if he was my child.”
I haven’t been able to watch a football game this year after watching Damar Hamlin collapse.
Many young men dream of the day they hear their name called by the commissioner of the NFL. Many of them are aware of the fact this dream could result in potential life altering or life ending injuries. But sadly due to the promise of fortune and fame, they just like the rest of us dismiss these fears because like Travis Hunter said “It’s football at the end of the day, stuff like that’s gonna happen. I mean what are you supposed to do?”