How Damar Hamlin’s Recovery Allowed Us to Breathe
Last week came the horror of watching Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety, suffer cardiac arrest live on television, followed by days of national soul-searching about the violence of America’s most popular sport. This weekend, the narrative flipped.
On Saturday night, before the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars faced off for a division title and a trip to the playoffs, both teams gathered at midfield, then knelt and prayed together. Sunday afternoon, on the usually macho CBS pregame show, Boomer Esiason confessed his love for each of the other panelists individually, which prompted Nate Burleson, another former player, to say, “Love you, too, brother.”
Before the opening kickoff of Sunday’s game pitting the Bills against the New England Patriots, Jim Nantz, the first-string play-by-play announcer for CBS, then delivered the N.F.L.’s message: “What we’ve really seen this week is a glimpse of humanity at its very best.” Nantz’s partner in the broadcasting booth, Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, underscored the point. “People came together and put their differences aside,” he said. What started as a tragedy, he added, “has slowly turned into a celebration of life.”
So what’s the ultimate takeaway? If Hamlin weren’t making a remarkable recovery, off his breathing tube, talking, tweeting and neurologically intact, it would probably be different. There would still be the outpouring of public good wishes but not the joy or shared pride and sense of common purpose. Like the movies and other forms of popular culture, football is a national barometer, after all. And the last week seems to have illuminated the country’s erratic condition — the violence but also the longing, or at least the posture of longing, for unity in polarizing times.
Looking back, what made Hamlin’s collapse all the more shocking last Monday night was how it followed the most routine of tackles. At this point it’s a fair guess that no play all season has been watched more often online. The telecast didn’t keep showing the tackle out of a sense of decency. Instead, cameras lingered over the players’ anguished reactions, showing teammates huddling around Hamlin’s body on the field, weeping and praying while medics struggled to save him for nearly 10 minutes.
The scene may have summoned to some minds famous paintings by artists like Giotto, Titian, Caravaggio and Dürer of mourning crowds surrounding Jesus as he is taken down from the cross or entombed. For centuries, church- and museum-goers have gaped, with something approximating the same mix of fear and confusion, at these pictures of violence and despair. America certainly didn’t invent rubbernecking.
Or violent sports. Twenty-nine Formula 1 drivers died during the ’60s in Formula 1 or other racing cars; 18 during the ’70s. Auto racing was popular in Europe and considered all the more glamorous for being dangerous. Things changed after the death of Ayrton Senna, the sublime Brazilian driver, in 1994. New regulations and technologies arrived. A culture of safety emerged.
In the United States, navel-gazing about football and violence is nothing new. Between 1900 and 1905, 15 years before the National Football League was founded, at least 45 college players died from broken necks and backs, concussions and internal injuries they suffered playing football, according to The Washington Post. The death toll troubled Americans enough that President Theodore Roosevelt and a number of university presidents pressed for reforms. Today we gather in front of our screens by the tens of millions to witness collisions of increasingly spectacular brutality with the expectation that modern players, vastly better trained and equipped than they were a century ago, will pop back up like John Wick and Spider-Man.
Of course, we know that sometimes they don’t. The long-term effects of concussions have increasingly become a topic of public concern, alongside gun control, mass shootings and crime. But Americans juggle conflicted feelings about the violent game. Some parents, and even former N.F.L. stars, are discouraging their young children from taking up tackle football. At the same time, football, like no other sport, crosses politics, gender, race, age and class in the United States. N.F.L. games accounted for a whopping 82 of the 100 most-watched television broadcasts last year, according to Nielsen, making it the last remaining form of water cooler entertainment in our atomized culture.
Not coincidentally pro football only took off as a national sport during the late ’50s and ’60s when it embraced television, which marketed football’s brutality as a counterweight to baseball’s languor. The league cooked up documentaries and highlights shows, memorably narrated for years by John Facenda, the voice of God. “The game is a time warp where the young dream of growing up and the old remember youth,” he intoned. As the writer James Surowiecki put it, NFL Films “tried to simultaneously convey the gritty reality of the game and mythicize it in a Homeric fashion.”
This was also the era of America’s metastasizing debacle in Vietnam. A 1967 documentary, “They Call It Pro Football,” exalted N.F.L. linebackers who, like American soldiers in Da Nang and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, were on “search-and-destroy” missions. Head coaches like Vince Lombardi were lionized as tactical generals leading self-sacrificing armies of clean-cut soldiers to victory. The nation was on the verge of coming apart and football needed its own counter culture representative, who arrived in the green and white uniform of the New York Jets in the upstart American Football League. While campuses were erupting with antiwar protests, the Jets’ playboy quarterback, Joe Namath, with his long hair, fur coats and bedroom eyes, famously predicted the Jets would beat the N.F.L.’s ultra-establishmentarian Baltimore Colts and win Super Bowl III.
When the Jets won, football not only survived the upheaval. It came out richer, more popular than ever and unified. At least on Sundays, Americans could dream about Hollywood endings despite their divisions.
We are again a nation divided, and reading more than ever into the meaning of the game and what, wishfully or otherwise, it says about us. Buffalo fans this Sunday suggested Hamlin’s recovery was a metaphor for the resilience of a city battered by storms, decline and crime. As if on cue, the Bills returned the opening kickoff against the Patriots for a touchdown, the first time the team had done that in 18 years. A nail-biter through the first half, Buffalo pulled away in the second. “We all won,” Hamlin tweeted from his hospital bed. As Nantz, the announcer, put it: “Love for Damar, it was definitely in the air. Not just here. All across this league, this nation.”
Then he asked the melancholy question that seemed to sum up the week. “The love, the support, the prayers,” he said, “why can’t we live like that every day?”