By Harvey Wasserman / CounterPunch
American football has always been a blood sport.
It needs to change or die.
Tackle must end. Flags must come.
And they will.
Why? Because human lives are at stake…and with them, a trillion-dollar industry.
A century ago, football players were maimed and died in droves. The college game was a cross between rugby, mixed martial arts and all-out trench warfare.
Merciless scrums brought on bloody body piles in which players did their very best to gouge and permanently harm their opponents. Often they succeeded.
Where helmets were worn, they were virtually useless leather gloves, perhaps functional in keeping cracked skulls from falling apart during a game, but that was about it. The death toll for a given year of the college game was substantial and undeniable. Long-term post-season repercussions were undiscussed, unstudied…and permanent.
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Early in the twentieth century, both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson intervened. By the time the pro game caught hold after World War 2, hard helmets, shoulder pads, body cushioning and tightened rules significantly lowered the kill ratio.
One could attribute that in part to an evolution of human compassion. But owners were now investing significant money in players whose health had financial value. And make no mistake—-that again will help motivate change.
Fast-forward to this past Monday night. In a critical game between two top teams, on the National Football League’s premier weekly televised showcase, we were caught in a life-and-death crap shoot.
About ten minutes into the first quarter, with more than 65,000 fans packed into Cincinnati’s stadium, Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin (age 24) slammed into Bengals receiver Tee Higgins.
It appeared to be a “routine” hit. As is the game’s macho custom, those involved jumped up as if it was a day at the beach.
But in fact, a stack of bodies had slammed into each other with enough raw force to devastate “regular people” with excruciating—-likely permanent—injury. You, me and 99% of the rest of us reading this article or watching these games would be utterly ravaged by a hit like that…writhing in pain if still conscious, maimed for life.
Hamlin had certainly absorbed scores of such hits in his high school, college, and brief pro careers. He was in fact subbing for another player who’d been hurt earlier in the season.
After Monday’s hit, he bounced up and took two steps.
Then the world turned upside down. Damar Hamlin backward and hit the turf unconscious.
With Hamlin lying face down, the NFL’s medical team raced onto the field. They TWICE resuscitated him—-ie brought him back from actual death—-then raced him to a nearby hospital.
Official details are scarce. Hamlin may have suffered at least one cardiac arrest. He may have taken a one-in-a-million chest hit precisely timed to disrupt his heart. He may have had a pre-existing condition that should have been caught beforehand.
His brain was likely deprived of significant oxygen. The medical team reportedly induced a coma to minimize permanent damage.
Whatever the case, a historic line has been crossed.
Under “normal football conditions” over the past century-plus, the league would’ve been content to have the body carted off and thrown into an ambulance, taken out of sight and mind. After a five-minute break, the game would’ve restarted.
Some critics charge that’s what the NFL was about to do. Some of the players—-including the Cincinnati quarterback—-went into warm-up mode, apparently assuming battle would soon resume.
But others broke down in tears and knelt. A large circle locked arms to pray.
Soon—-and the decision path is here murky—-the coaches and the league somehow agreed to call off the game.
It was an astonishing moment. A huge stadium full of rabid fans in very expensive seats was forced to get up and leave. Thousands had to drive back to Buffalo without having seen a game in which they’d invested enormous amounts of time, money and emotional capital.
Millions of TV viewers saw something never witnessed in the annals of American sport—-the cancellation of a pivotal event due to an on-the-field injury. Carefully coiffed sportscasters completely unprepared to discuss the medical, political or emotional implications of what they’d just seen sat speechless. Three hours of hyper-expensive prime time stretched out before them…empty.
The only comparable event in recent history occurred at 5:04pm Pacific Time, October 17, 1989, just prior to game three of baseball’s World Series. A magnitude 6.9 earthquake killed nearly 70 people nearby, forcing the very dicey evacuation of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, which thankfully did not collapse. No one died there. But it was a damn close call.
Now a very different kind of tremor has struck to the core of America’s Game. Its roots run deep.
Without immediate medical care, Damar Hamlin would have died on the field. The exact medical circumstances remain shrouded in official murk. But his injuries clearly came from the brute force of a “routine” NFL hit.
So the question must be asked: will we, as a “civilized” society, continue showcasing this kind of brutality?
Medically, Hamlin’s catastrophic injury is the tip of the iceberg.
For decades it’s been clear that the concussions at football’s core have been doing immeasurable long-term human damage.
Far more insidious than the obvious on-the-field injuries, the head-banging is lethal. Each play hosts four or more bone-crushing collisions between extremely strong men beating the hell out of each other. On the line, during the pass rush, at the corners, amidst the down-field pass receptions, the full force collisions are hard to fathom.
Unlike Damar Hamlin’s collapse for all to see, the inescapable injuries from these ceaseless smash-ups are tangible and cumulative. Except for the kickers, virtually every NFL player suffers a serious injury. That includes even the most elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, each of whom has missed major playing time in their abnormally long careers.
The league well knows its human inventory is being steadily destroyed by head hits causing long-term brain damage. Not even insanely agile athletes weighing 300 pounds get out whole.
As seen in the 2016 film “Concussion” starring Will Smith, it took a Pittsburgh-based forensic pathologist dissecting the brain of a tragically demented former football star to uncover CTE, the degenerative disease that’s caused so much agony and early death.
Like the tobacco, nuclear power, and chemical pesticide industries, the barons of pro football have done all they can to deny the damage and destroy its discoverers.
But after years of angry litigation, and billions of dollars in tortious damages, CTE and the devastating impacts of on-the-field concussions are now indisputable.
So the league has installed “protocols” whereby certifiably injured players are taken out of a game until they can “recover”.
But such “precautions” come after the fact. Once a player suffers an NFL-scale concussion, the long-term effects are inescapable. Briefly benching a player can’t stop the inevitable next hit, whose impacts are likely to be exponential.
This year’s case in point has been Tua Tagovailoa. Early this season, the star Dolphins quarterback took a brutal head hit. But he went back into the game and got hit again.
He was pulled again. But then back in he went.
In the fourth quarter of a pivotal game against the Green Bay Packers, after being hit yet again, Tua threw three uncharacteristic interceptions, costing the Dolphins the game and maybe their place in the playoffs..
Did the head injuries do that?
Whatever the case, this twenty-something kid now faces a lifetime of questions about the likely length of his life shy of dementia.
As do hundreds more like him…including Damar Hamlin.
Going forward, do we as a society really want to pay to see these young men—-from high school on up—-sacrifice their bodies and their coming lives for our brief viewing pleasure?
Some 80% of the NFL’s players are black. Racial tensions and social justice issues are constant and escalating. Sooner or later, the loyalty of the viewing public is certain to crack.
So too the owners. Teams with hurt quarterbacks replaced by mediocre substitutes aren’t worth watching. They never bring the payoffs that come with the playoffs.
Kansas City recently signed quarterback Patrick Mahomes for nearly a half-billion dollars (that’s NOT a typo). For a mere quarter-billion, the Cleveland Browns have hired a quarterback who’s faced some two dozen charges of sexual assault.
Yet one errant hit from a 300-pound pass rusher could evaporate all that invested capital…along with the health and well-being of yet another young victim.
Nothing will improve without basic changes to the nature of the game. Concussion protocols, better helmets, stricter penalty calling…all can help. But they tip-toe around the perimeter.
At the core of all tackle football is the hard hit…the unrestrained flinging of one body against another. Helmets, shoulder pads, knee braces—-they all have their place.
But none can prevent the devastating damage of the ceaseless collisions that define this sport, filling it with shaky investments and making it progressively less watchable.
So let’s try Flag football.
It’s a game played by millions of amateurs unwilling to risk their heads and health.
Tackling is not allowed. Instead, there’s a flag stuck into the back of your pants. You’re brought down—-the play ends—-when your opponent throws it (not you) to the ground.
Knee, leg, and shoulder pulls, strains and tears are still with us. But hits to the head and body are gone.
That can sound seriously wimpy to many a fan who doesn’t play.
But the game is exciting and graceful. The humanitarian imperatives are undeniable.
And so are the financials.
All these big-time teams should be owned by the communities in which they play. The era of the billionaire owner should be long gone.
But in the meantime, those who run this insanely profitable industry must know that their cash cow is in danger.
Take Monday night’s clearing of the Cincinnati stadium. What if that had been the Super Bowl? Calculate the costs on that one (hint: it’s in the many billions).
Throughout the US, parents (like mine) are forbidding their kids from playing this game. At the grassroots, the up flow of talent and of future spectators is in deep jeopardy.
The industry is also rife with racial and class issues. These guys DO have a union, and have fought against CTE with epic power.
And then there’s the competition.
“European football”—-soccer—-is by far humankind’s most popular sport. The “beautiful game” does incur brain injuries from “heading” the ball.
But the carnage does not approach American football. A whole new generation is opting for soccer…especially after the stunning success of the world-champion American women.
So sooner or later, the twain must meet. A mostly non-violent sport is the world’s most popular. And our own brutal brand of football is less lethal than it was a century ago…but has a long way to go.
Today’s high-tech helmets, concussion protocols and willingness to clear a stadium for a mere fatal injury would be as alien to the old timers as flag football to today’s macho headbangers.
But something further must be done.
So let’s start by sticking a flag in the back of the quarterbacks’ pants.
End a passing play by throwing that flag—-not the actual player—-to the ground. Eject anybody who hits a QB behind the line of scrimmage.
Spread the practice from the quarterbacks to the receivers (who are also ridiculously vulnerable) and then to the runners.
The old schoolers will yell. But the game has changed before and now must change yet again.
Near-death show-stoppers like Monday night’s in Cincinnati are unsustainable. So are the concussions that quietly maim and kill for decades to come.
The players and their families cannot survive them. Nor can American football.
Sanity beckons. So does soccer.