If NFL truly cares about players, only course of action is to cancel game in wake of Damar Hamlin injury

Buffalo Bills players react after teammate Damar Hamlin was injured against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images - image credit)
Buffalo Bills players react after teammate Damar Hamlin was injured against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

By now we've all seen the footage.

Midway through the first quarter of Monday night's NFL game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati wide receiver Tee Higgins, ball tucked under his right arm, plowed into Damar Hamlin, the Bills defensive back who hauled him to the ground. On the Richter scale we use to measure pro football's seismic violence, this play barely rated. Many NFL collisions resonate like earthquakes. Higgins and Hamlin looked, in contrast, like a pair of shopping carts colliding in the produce aisle.

But we've also all seen what happened next. Hamlin, a second-year free safety who grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, rising to his feet, then falling straight back, unconscious before he even hit the turf at Paycor Stadium. The cause, we learned later, was cardiac arrest, likely triggered by the collision, which jolted Hamlin's heart out of rhythm.

Commotio cordis, doctors call it.

The images and reports over the next 30 minutes are similarly difficult to forget. Players from both teams kneeling in prayer circles. An ambulance backing up next to the fallen Hamlin. Medical staff performing CPR before taking the 24-year-old player to hospital, where, as of Wednesday, he remained, sedated and in critical condition.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Controversy over restarting game

Here, the NFL had a chance to back up its high-profile talk about prioritizing the mental and physical health of its on-field work force. Suspend the game. Postpone it. Cancel it outright. All reasonable options, given that these players had just seen a peer's heart stop beating, and couldn't be sure he would survive the night.

Instead, we heard ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck tell us he had been informed that after five more minutes, the teams would start warm-ups, and prepare to resume the game. The NFL might pause for egregious injuries — concussions, compound fractures, paralysis — but the games never stop.

A look at Bills receiver Stefon Diggs' tearful face, or the sombre embrace between quarterbacks Josh Allen and Joe Burrow, told you that five minutes from now, the players would still be mid-vigil, with no inclination to resume playing. So between the players, their coaches, and the NFLPA, the call was made to suspend the game.

Later on Monday night, the league denied trying to restart the game, which had heavy implications for the AFC's playoff bracket. But 48 hours later, the NFL still hasn't committed to cancelling the contest.

Strange strategy for a league that, in public, trumpets its commitment to players' wellbeing.

WATCH | Former NHLer Chris Pronger suffered similar injury:

The Bills and Bengals are likely still traumatized after watching a co-worker's heart stop. They'll need time to regroup before returning to work. Most of us would.

And the calendar? It's unforgiving. Week 17 is done. Week 18 is coming, and so are the playoffs. You can't squeeze an extra game into that small window. Tired players plus a tight timeline equals even more injury risk than normal.

If you care about player health, you don't even consider wringing more games out of them, this week or next.

But if you view players as secondary to the "Business of Football"; if you see them as robots programmed to generate points for your fantasy team; if, in the age of legalized sports gambling, they're just human slot machines serving up big payouts…

Then you look for ways to replay the game.

The NFL has said only that Bills-Bengals won't resume this week.

After that? Who knows? It's still possible.

If football is the priority, then cancelling the game presents logistical problems. How would you seed teams in the playoffs if two contenders have incomplete records? Aren't you punishing some AFC clubs, and rewarding others, based on factors they couldn't control?

Probably.

As Victor Mather of the New York Times explains, none of the options are perfect.

But if you accept that a mid-game cardiac arrest creates an imperfect situation, and you stop trying to force these facts into a perfect paradigm, then there's no dilemma. You cancel the game and credit Buffalo and Cincinnati each with a tie. And if neither team is ready to play this weekend, you declare ties in their week 18 games too.

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Imperfect situation

The Bills are 12-4 and set to win the AFC East either way. Adjusting the Bengals' record would rattle playoff seeding, but the post-season brackets will sort themselves out.

Yes, it's inconvenient for players and team owners, and for people who have already bought tickets to games that the NFL could still cancel, hypothetically.

But wasn't the immediate lesson from Hamlin's health crisis that some things are, pardon the cliché, "Bigger Than Football?" Can we gripe about sunk ticket costs, or our favourite team's playoff seeding, when the real blessing is that we're healthy enough to worry about this stuff? Are we missing the bigger picture again? Already?

Maybe.

So let me help everybody refocus.

Rule-makers at various levels can legislate some danger out of the sport. That's why horse-collar tackles are illegal, and the Chuck Cecil-type headhunting free safety is as obsolete as the square-toed place-kicking shoe.

But violence is still central to the sport's appeal. That's why tackle football is a multibillion-dollar spectator sport, and flag football is something you do with your buddies on the weekend.

Careers can still end in a single play. Ask Joe Theismann. Or Steve Young. Or Michigan's Daydrion Taylor and Penn State's Bob Stephenson, the participants in the single biggest hit in college football history. A highlight-reel play in 1997, when teams and media didn't take concussions as seriously as we do now. Neither man played again.

All those injuries are disturbing, but if you're selling the sport, or playing it, or considering enrolling your kids, you can explain them away as extreme outcomes following extreme plays. The freight-train-on-freight-train intensity of the Taylor-Stephenson collision? Used to happen once every couple of years in big-time football. Now? Maybe once a decade.

Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images
Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Extreme outcomes

Certainly, Hamlin vs Higgins didn't come close.

And that's what's so chilling. Mundane play, catastrophic result.

It's one thing for players, or their parents, to ponder the microscopic risk of a severed spinal cord on a freak play. You can convince yourself it'll happen to somebody else, or someone else's kid, if it happens at all.

But to accept that a normal hit could lead to cardiac arrest, a ventilator and a long hospital stay? That could trigger a different risk calculus, for players, parents, sponsors, and maybe, eventually, the NFL, which has been selling the idea that player health is a priority.

Even as it lengthens the regular season.

Or schedules Thursday night games.

Or considers cramming the Bills-Bengals game somewhere between now and the playoffs.

Cancelling that game is simple. A few pen strokes and a series of phone calls. A straight-forward decision if player health matters to decision-makers.

But if this game ever takes place, we'll know what the NFL actually values.