Bills player

It was shortly after supper time on the first Monday night in 2023 when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collided with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins near midfield. Hamlin popped to his feet. He adjusted his face mask. Then the 24-year-old toppled directly backward; his heart stopped cold.

“That’s, uh, that’s not what any of us wants to see,” said Troy Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned Monday Night Football commentator. “You just hope that he’s going to be OK.”

Most of us agree utterly with the second part of Aikman’s analysis: We fervently hope Hamlin, who remains in critical condition as I write this, will not only survive his episode of cardiac arrest but once again thrive.

That remains to be seen so early one, but some things we already can say for certain. 

The impromptu show of support for Hamlin, including the $8 million donated to his GoFundMe toy drive — initial goal $2,500 — is heartening, especially when this country of 350 million people can agree on precious little. 

Also, we can submit that Aikman was wrong, or more than a little naive, if he truly believes that football fans don’t tune in to games to see the obliterating hits that Monday Night Football and every other broadcast thrives on.

True, no one wants to see a young man meet death or be maimed on the field. But be real: When hulking brutes of enormous strength square off 11 on 11, some capable of bench pressing 400 pounds while others run 40 yards in a little over 4 seconds, what do you expect to happen?

Every football play at the professional and college level is a traffic accident, minus the vehicles, bumpers and seat belts. The wonder isn’t that Hamlin was felled midgame; it’s that no one has died on a gridiron since football started being played for money more than 100 years ago.

The NFL can talk all it wants about player safety, but the league didn’t command $100 billion in television rights because Joe Sixpack loves to see a well-executed screen pass for 11 yards and a first down.

Football fans watch because we thirst for machismo, combat, violence. Then we cue up the highlights and watch it again. At least until an incident like Damar Hamlin’s collapse reminds us that this isn’t ancient Rome and these aren’t gladiators.

These are human beings risking their lives and who suffer from such high levels of chronic traumatic encephalopathy that the NFL has paid out more than $1 billion in settlement funds since 2015 to more than 1,500 concussed former players and their kin — with thousands of additional claims pending.

Since Hamlin fell, I have heard all manner of analysis about how the league handled postponing the game, how ESPN covered it, and how Hamlin’s heart may respond to treatment. 

All this chatter focuses in precisely the wrong direction. It looks outward at the conditions on the field, instead of looking inward, at why we tolerate a game that inevitably cripples a good number of combatants annually. 

Since 1931, when the American Football Coaches Association undertook the first Annual Survey of Football Fatalities, statistics show that 1,064 football players have died as a direct result of the game — not counting heat strokes suffered in practice, etc. 

That includes last year, when “there were 4 traumatic injury fatalities that occurred among football players during football-related activities.”

All four were high school kids. All four suffered traumatic brain injuries. 

Let’s pray Damar Hamlin isn’t fatality number 1,065. Let’s also look in the mirror and ask the face staring back why we never consider turning off the TV and finding something better to occupy our attention.