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Damar Hamlin and my desensitized soul

The distress of the Buffalo Bills’ young safety surfaces questions about how we watch the NFL and view its players

The National Football League mostly did everything right Monday evening. The medical staff at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati responded immediately when it became apparent that Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was in distress.

The NFL, the NFL Players Association in coordination with the head coaches of the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills acted compassionately and decisively when they agreed to postpone then cancel the highly anticipated Monday night game between their powerhouse teams.

Great decisions.

What began to bother me on Monday evening was my initial desensitized reaction to watching a player, in this case young Hamlin, lay on the turf after making a hard tackle. In 40 years of covering games, I’ve seen variations of this so many times, week after week, game after game, play after play: a player goes down, his teammates solemnly kneel besides him in a show of respect. Invariably, the player gets up and walks off under his own power, is helped off by trainers or is carted off the field.

We’re used to ferocious collisions and mostly happy endings. We applaud the player as he walks off the field, then sit back down in our seats, in our suites, in our press boxes and focus on the next play. Then we begin the evaluation process: how will the injury impact the team, the season, our fantasy team, the point spread. This injury scenario is played out multiple times per game, hundreds of times per year to an extent that it becomes a yawning everyday routine — for the fan and the journalist, certainly not the athlete.

But Monday evening I realized, with sadness, the extent to which I had become desensitized to the real-life violence of our national pastime. I imagine that many of the 70,000 fans inside the stadium in Cincinnati were ready to settle back in and watch more of what promised to be a rock’em sock’em football game. Indeed, after Hamlin had been taken off the field by ambulance, the Buffalo defense, perhaps in a conditioned response, seemed headed back onto the field.

Mercifully, reason and compassion prevailed. The players were ordered off the field and into their respective locker rooms. I don’t doubt for a second that there was some sentiment to resume the game. Someone, perhaps Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations for the NFL, insisted that the league could not in good conscious send players back out to the field. They had been traumatized and were living through a living nightmare that was only going to worsen.

But what was I thinking? What was I feeling before the gravity of the situation became apparent?

When would play resume?

Buffalo Bills players react after teammate Damar Hamlin was injured against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on Jan 2, 2023, in Cincinnati.

Too often we — I — respond to these football injuries in the abstract, the same way we respond to trades and firings as somehow not real and not disruptive to family and individual lives. It’s all cartoon violence; they’re cartoon lives. And anyway, shouldn’t the players feel grateful for being paid to play a game that so many would play for free?

We see players as objects, figures in the entertainment space, see them as imaginary, not as human beings with jobs and families, but as cogs in a machine, chess pieces to move around a virtual board. The explosion of fantasy football and now unbridled gambling has contributed to a general numbing of our sensibilities.

A few years ago, I spoke with former Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart about his disdain for fantasy football. Specifically, he spoke about how fantasy football contributed to desensitizing fans to the reality of pain and injuries — the signature of a violent game.

We’ve seen it and those who are fantasy participants have experienced it firsthand: An injury to a key player elicits groans, sometimes profanity because it hurts the player’s fantasy team.

“I see them bashing people’s names, cursing them out on social media,” Stewart said at the time, referring to fantasy participants. “Bashing guys for not performing because they didn’t win $10 in their fantasy football league. You want to respect your fans, but you want the fans to respect the game.”

At the time, Stewart was being harshly criticized on social media because injuries had slowed his productivity and availability. “You see somebody when you go out and they say, ‘Hey, man, I need you for my fantasy team,’ ” Stewart said. “I’m like: ‘Wait, I need this for my job. Forget your fantasy.’ What’s important here? You making a couple dollars in an easy format or me providing because this is my job?”

The reality is that what unfolded on Monday Night Football could happen every Sunday, every Monday, every Thursday and it’s perhaps a minor miracle that there has not been a tragic spectacle on prime time before this.

How will the National Football League move on? The games must be played — the show must go on, as they say. There is little chance that the rest of the season will be cancelled.

How will teams deal with their players? Will it be enough to tap into the “next man up” mantra? That is who Damar Hamlin is — the next man up. He had been starting for the Bills in place of the injured safety Micah Hyde, who suffered a neck injury in Week 2 and had been on injured reserve since then.

The other truth this tragedy dredges up is that NFL players, more than almost any other group of professional athletes, deserve guaranteed contracts.

NFL coaches and executives are fond of saying that football is a 100% injury game. That’s fine to say — sustaining injuries is a guarantee — but contracts should also be guaranteed. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and even the National Hockey League have guaranteed contracts. Not the NFL, which packages and brands a special type of violence.

This is a hill on which the NFL has vowed to fight and die. They will not countenance such blasphemy. That’s why there was so much angst about the Cleveland Browns giving Deshaun Watson a fully guaranteed contract. And now Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, a former league MVP and onetime face of the NFL, is demanding a fully guaranteed contract. This is indeed something players should fight — and strike — for. But that’s an argument for another day.

Today is not the day to fight for a cause. Today is the day to pray for young Damar Hamlin, who was playing a game he loved and playing the only way he knows how to play. I don’t know how the NFL will get past this very public tragedy.

All I know is that for the last 48 hours, as I’ve thought and prayed for a young football player in a Cincinnati hospital fighting for his life, I’ve also begun to reckon with my own desensitized soul.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.