To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Sports industry shows blatant disregard of players’ health

On Jan. 2, the whole world watched in horror as a normal football game quickly became an absolute nightmare. It was a Monday Night Football game that had huge playoff implications. The Buffalo Bills faced the Cincinnati Bengals as both teams were trying to get the number one seed in the American Football Conference (AFC). Everyone knew it was going to be an intense game between two of the best teams in the National Football League (NFL). The Bengals had an early 7-3 lead over the Bills when a devastating event occurred. With 5:58 left to go in the first quarter, Bills safety Damar Hamlin tackled Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin proceeded to stand up before collapsing to the ground. At first people may have thought it was a normal injury; however, the mood quickly changed when the paramedics rushed the field. The players surrounded him with a complete mood switch. Hamlin at first was being moved to the ambulance before cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was required. This player went from playing a football game to fighting for his life. Everyone around him was struggling to stay focused. Many players were emotional, including Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was seen crying on the field. When Hamlin finally left the field, he had a pulse but was unable to breathe on his own. He was transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and then came the time of uncertainty. Everyone had the same question: What happens now? Can you continue playing the game after that? It didn’t seem like it. Most of the players looked completely distraught. However, it was an important game. What came next showed the dark side of not just the NFL but the professional sports industry in general. 

The obvious solution was to either cancel or postpone the game. Any fan could see how easy it was to just postpone the game to the next day. However, it apparently wasn’t so simple. The broadcast said that the teams were informed that they would have five minutes to warm up before the game was set to start again, though when this announcement was made, no players were seen making an attempt to warm-up. Instead, the players on the Bills were trying to comfort one another, clearly still shaken from witnessing their teammate go down in what should have been a pretty standard play. NFL representatives later said that the teams were never informed of such things, however that could be them changing the story because of the backlash that they saw. Eventually, the coaches came together and decided to go back to the locker room to discuss next steps. At that point it felt inevitable that the game was going to be postponed. There was no way anyone could take the game seriously after a player nearly died right in front of them. It took over an hour for the game to be officially postponed by the NFL. It appeared as if the NFL wanted the game to go on, but the coaches stopped the game. After the game Bengals head coach Zac Taylor described how Bills head coach Sean McDermott said this to him when Hamlin went to the hospital, “I need to be at the hospital with Damar.” 

Why was this decision so difficult to make? Firstly, it was a meaningful game so it could not just be canceled. If the game was postponed to another time, when would it be played? It takes a lot to schedule an NFL game. Workers need to be hired to manage the game. The stadium needs to be set up to host another game. Broadcasters need to be hired for the game. Airtime needs to be sorted out. Tickets need to either be resold or adjusted. It’s a complicated process. That is probably why it took so long for the NFL to make an official decision. Logistically it was a nightmare for the NFL. However, at that moment, logistics should not have mattered. It was about the players and nothing more. 

The NFL showed they don’t care about the players. It’s a business to them. If they cancel the game they lose out on so much money and to run a successful business you don’t want to lose money at all. In professional sports, money doesn’t just come from viewership now: there’s so much sports betting involved as well. It’s not just on the outcome of games. All sorts of prop bets are made, such as who scores the first touchdown or whether a player will have more than 50 yards in the game. So again, disruptions to games can cause some serious problems for these sports betting companies. It’s not just a game anymore. 

Hamlin’s cardiac arrest showed more flaws in the sports industry as a whole. One of the biggest issues in professional sports is how players are often treated as assets. They aren’t really seen as humans anymore. Maybe you might see them as a football player but they are much more than that. Former player Ryan Clark suffered a big injury in his career and had this to say: “When you see both teams on the field crying in that way, your first thought is Damar Hamlin, the second thought is his family. This isn’t about a football player. This is about a human.” I think even as fans we sometimes forget that these players are just like us in more ways than not. Just because we go and watch them play a sport every week does not make them so different. Although we as fans may think this, we do not have as much of an impact as the organizations that pay them and allow the leagues to run. In a Cleveland sports show, a host talked about how the pay functions for injured players in the NFL works. He described how these players might get injured for the rest of their lives and they will barely get anything from the NFL. Furthermore, the NFL is actively trying to minimize this pay. This includes any chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) related incidents. Even after a player signs their first contracts, the money is not completely guaranteed. When a player goes on injury reserve, their pay gets cut. Hamlin is getting fully paid after a deal was negotiated between the Bills and the NFL, but that was only after a specific negotiation. This, again, may have just been a publicity move from the NFL. It’s not just the NFL that is having issues with pay. In Minor League Baseball, the players are being treated extremely poorly. The range for pay last year was $4000 to $14,000 for the entire year for minor league players. That is absurd for players trying to achieve their dream of playing in the majors. Once again, we see how players are assets. Teams don’t want to pay their minor league players because they aren’t actively making them any money; they might make them money in the future but not at the moment. I understand that professional sports is a business. However, everyone needs to realize that the athletes are still human and should be treated with that respect. 

I should preface what I’m about to say with the fact that I don’t like football. I don’t particularly care to watch grown men tackle each other to the ground and inflict severe brain damage that will impact them for the rest of their lives. So with this critique I can find no empathy toward the NFL and how it decides to treat its players. Unfortunately, the case of Damar Hamlin is not an isolated incident. He is just one episode in a greater trend that shows the NFL is failing its players. Let’s look to earlier this season with Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins. Tagovailoa was hit two separate times over the course of five days, hitting the occipital part of his head. Tagovailoa was not flagged for potentially having a concussion after the first game on Sep. 25, and it wasn’t until he played again just four days later on Sep. 29 when he hit his head again that he had to be put on a stretcher after being knocked unconscious when his head collided with the turf. Because of the NFL’s current concussion protocol procedure, there were found to be no violations of concussion protocol. Even when Tagovailoa returned to play in week 16 and hit his head for a third time, the NFL deemed that “no violations of the concussion protocol were found” because according to the care provided, “symptoms of a concussion were neither exhibited nor reported until the following day.” At this point, anyone not attached to the sport begins to think “just stop playing.” But you have to then distinguish that this is not just a sport to these players, it is their livelihood. Tagovailoa and the Dolphins have since been warned about how “irresponsible” it is for him to continue playing. He will likely have permanent brain damage

The players are pawns. The way the NFL has responded to both these situations clearly demonstrates a priority to making money over a players’ health and wellness. And yes you can argue that the NFL is a business and it must act in its best interest to make a profit. But these are people’s lives. These were two cases, mere months apart, where two men were wheeled off the field on stretchers because they were not conscious. Tagovailoa’s injuries were preventable if the concussion protocols for the NFL were geared towards actually protecting a player’s health. No one in their right mind should have approved Tagovailoa to play four days after his first head injury and even after the second one there should have been more time spent in recovery. As for Hamlin, despite the NFL’s denial over having said the game would resume in five minutes, it still took them an hour to cancel the game. The cancellation wasn’t just for Hamlin’s sake but for his teammates and competitors too who had just watched something so horrifiic. Clearly those men were not okay to proceed with business as usual, especially since the play that Hamden made was a pretty run-of-the-mill tackle. There was no serious slamming into the ground, or foul play involved. This is so ingrained in the culture of the NFL that multiple media outlets are reporting that when Hamlin woke up he asked the doctor whether they won or not. Even the players prioritze the game over their own health because that is what they are trained to believe. The personal health of their players is of little concern to the franchise until it makes them look bad. 

And it isn’t just the NFL: this is directed at any sports organization that relies on the health of players to have a successful franchise. There is this greater trend of sports organizations treating their athletes like horses rather than people. Athletes are thrown to the curb if they are presumed to no longer be physically fit to continue playing. Organizations like the NFL use their players until they literally cannot walk anymore, they will boast players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady who don’t have a history of severe injuries and they’ll put players like Hamlin and Tagovailoa whose health is now severly questionable into a corner. If you are ever lucky enough to take Human Neuropsychology with Teresa Mitchell (NPSY) you get to look at scans of former football players and you can see how their brain matter has significantly decreased in size compared to people who have not suffered from multiple head injuries. 

Again, I am not a football fan; I’ve always felt pretty indifferent over Brandeis not having a football team. But it’s situations like this that make me infinitely happy that we do not have one. Imagine one of your friends getting so banged up during a game that they couldn’t look at their computer screen. How do you manage classes and do this? Hamlin is only 24 years old; he’s practically our age. The NFL has to do better, and saying thoughts and prayers and going back on what you said originally is not enough. Your players deserve more.

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