Someone made the right call. The human call. The only call, really.
When it mattered, when only the compassionate decision made sense, the show didn’t go on.
Instead, Monday Night Football ended in a maelstrom of agony, frustration and stares from 1,000 yards away. We saw two teams wrap their arms in a cocoon of humanity around Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who was receiving CPR compressions after colliding with Cincinnati Bengals wide Tee Higgins, then passing out in front of a national television audience. Nearby, players and staff cried and held each other. Others tugged at their shirts and clothes, or simply put their faces in their hands and melted.
In a league that has come to push the boundaries of what we accept as normal and part of the sport of gladiators, this moment was something unlike anything we’ve seen in the social media era of the NFL. . The veneer of an impenetrable facade has fallen off, exposing boundless vulnerability and a reality that has always stalked this league: He is a line. A brutal and horrible line. And his discovery was just as gruesome as we thought.
As witnesses, that’s what Monday night meant to us. Something different. A significant inflection point for the NFL, when all the talk of players putting their lives on the line suddenly coalesced into a collective image that won’t soon be forgotten. One that underscored what we’ve learned in so many ways over so many decades: that within this vicious form of entertainment, every hit carries an inherent danger of changing someone’s life forever. Or end it altogether.
We absorbed this Monday evening. The brutal and gruesome line that eventually became so clear that anyone involved – perhaps almost everyone involved – understood that no game should be unstoppable. Not for our entertainment. Not for ratings and commercial sponsors. Not for the trivia of sports betting and fantasy football. Not even for the long standing compromise that we have been sold for so long that risking life and limb is just an extension of a football contract.
We always knew too far existed, even in the NFL. What we didn’t know was what it would look like or how it would make us feel. When we wake up on Tuesday, we won’t be able to say that anymore. Instead, players will know it’s like losing a sense of invincibility, resilience, and control. Fans will know it’s like looking at a picture and begging a player to just move, all of which brings the moment back to the distorted relief of the phrase “he’s got feel in his extremities.”
Perhaps most importantly, the NFL will know what it’s like to see every part of the machine simply refuse to respond in the face of a nightmare. The league took a good look at the players who were never going to play again that night. Coaches who were never going to coach. Fans and reporters who — for the most part — refused to indulge in absurd rationalizations about what a cancellation might mean for logistics or playoff implications.
For once, perhaps the first time since the NFL briefly shut down following the September 11 terrorist attacks, something else had to be more important than the product. That something was Damar Hamlin’s safety and the well-being of everyone around him. If it weren’t more important than finishing a prime-time football game, it would validate the criticisms of everyone who has cast the league as a soulless slot machine.
That’s why we scoffed when the ESPN show suggested play would continue after a 5-minute warm-up. None of this made sense. The grief and backlash after hearing it – everything about it made sense. The NFL has denied knowing where this suggestion came from., but he certainly didn’t end up on the show out of nowhere. For a league reputation dogged by skeptics and conspiracy theorists, the timing will never truly be set.
In the end, the most important thing is that the machine stopped. The line was recognized by someone, somewhere. And when that happened, it allowed us to turn our full attention to Hamlin, who is in his place from the moment he collapsed on the pitch following a cardiac arrest.
As former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark framed on ESPN Monday night, “For over 100 adult grown men, who their entire lives have put on pads and understood the risk you take every time you do it, to be speechless, to be in tears, to gather in prayer, which tells you how important this moment was. …
“Truly, if the NFL cares about the players, this is the first time I think the NFL should also care about the emotional and mental health of the players. This is the first time we’ve seen those emotions, we We’re looking at this type of thought process right in front of us.
The unfolding of this lesson has long seemed inevitable. And just as we imagined, the cost to learn it was as horrible as it was predictable. Damar Hamlin is fighting for his life in hospital and the moment that may have changed his life now resides in our memory forever.
It was the most terrible way to learn where the NFL line between entertainment and humanity is drawn. Not to mention the real risk on both sides.
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