The football world came to a standstill at 8:58 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Monday, January 2, 2023. That was when 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed at the 5:58 mark of the first quarter on the Cincinnati Bengals’ turf. Hamlin was administered CPR on the field, placed on a stretcher, and taken off the field, unconscious, in an ambulance. The thousand-mile stares, tears, and evident distress on the faces of players from both teams were yet another powerful reminder that humanity is more important than football.
In a highly anticipated game, and arguably the game of the season, the pomp and circumstance came to a halt as compassion and grace interrupted our demand for entertainment. Hamlin’s mother came down to the field and accompanied her son in the ambulance as both teams gathered for prayer on the sidelines. Soon after, the Bills and Bengals returned to their locker rooms. Coaches and players later embraced each other outside their locker rooms when the game was inevitably suspended, then postponed. Neither team wanted to continue playing, and understandably so.
I’ve written about the business of football versus the business of compassion before, when the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa suffered a head injury. (Ironically, on the Cincinnati Bengals’ turf during a Monday night game earlier in the season.) Tagovailoa, too, exited the field on a stretcher. But he was conscious. The last time a player left the football field lifeless was in 1971, when Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes suffered a heart attack in the middle of a game against the Chicago Bears and passed away on the spot.
Over the ensuing decades, we’ve become immune to players suffering head trauma, losing consciousness, and leaving the field. The game continues and we barely think twice about their health moving forward. But as Hamlin left the field unconscious, it gave us the pause that we should always have when players—playing the game they love—suffer injuries.
All athletes, including football players, are human beings and image-bearers of God before they are sports entertainers. So when they make mistakes, ruin our fantasy scores, or suffer injuries, we should think twice before calling them out or dismissing them as useless. I’m guilty of it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. We forget that it’s a blessing to watch people use their God-given talents to do what they love — and that they owe us nothing. Hamlin does not owe us his life, his limbs, or his mind. Like many athletes, he’s given us his dream for our entertainment.
In the above video, ESPN analyst Ryan Clark (a former safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers) explained perfectly the compassion that the NFL needs when approaching situations like Hamlin’s. He essentially said that if the NFL cared about the players, they’d put mental health professionals in both locker rooms and worry less about finishing the game and more about the mental health of both organizations.
Damar Hamlin’s collapse cannot be business as usual. No player’s injury should be. I hope we never become desensitized to player mishaps, mistakes, or injuries from this moment forward. Instead, I hope we regard them as flawed, fragile, and emotional human beings and image-bearers of God above all else.
As of this writing, Hamlin is hospitalized, sedated, and listed in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. We, along with everyone else in sports news, keep Damar Hamlin, his family, and his teammates in our prayers.