By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
One week after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s catastrophic injury shocked and traumatized tens of thousands watching that fateful Jan. 2 “Monday Night Football” game, ESPN issued a shocking report.
It claimed that NFL officials did not want to stop the game. It claimed that the NFL representative supervising at the game got heavy pressure from both the NFL central office and even a top National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) official to restart the game.
NFL officials hotly disputed the ESPN claim. The league office and the NFLPA insisted that at no point did they consider continuing the game. The official record, though, shows that the game was canceled after the two team’s coaches, players and game officials agreed not to resume play.
The ESPN report, whether true or not, again called into question an issue that has been endlessly debated for decades. That is how much do the NFL owners and the players association really care about the health, safety and standard of living of their prime employees — the players? If one accepted the ESPN report as fact, the answer was: not very much.
NFL officials and the players association, of course, tell a far different story on the issue of player concern. They continually tick off the litany of safety improvements, rule changes and practice and equipment changes, and the radical ramp-up of medical personnel on alert at the games as proof that their concern is, first and foremost, the players’ well-being. This is not total puffery and a public relations gambit. The league has spent millions on health and safety changes in the game.
The retort, though, is the injuries continue to pile up and players’ careers are cut short by them. When that happens, the NFL’s tight fist on disability payments and the pay and compensation for players on reserve, though seemingly expansive, hardly is commensurate with the danger level of the game and the relatively short time that most players will remain in the game.
What is beyond dispute is that the NFL has never in its history, prior to Hamlin, ever stopped a game because of an on-the-field injury or mishap involving the players, no matter how wrenching. Throughout its entire history, the NFL has ceased play only three times. Two of those were during player strikes in 1982 and 1987. Those should come with an asterisk.
The owners still made a mighty effort to keep playing by bringing in a motley bunch of replacement players. The fans in general were having none of that. They stayed away in droves. Many stadiums were mostly empty.
The only other time the NFL stopped play was immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. It took a week off from play.
There was one other monumental tragedy in which the NFL was faced with the dilemma of whether to cancel its games. That was the assassination of President John Kennedy in November 1963. The nation was in deep mourning. Nearly everything that moved or was movable shut down. The NFL’s then-rival league, the AFL, quickly called off its games. But not the NFL.
Some NFL officials later attempted to toss the ball back to Kennedy officials. They said that they insisted JFK would have wanted the games to go on, presumably to give the nation some sense of normalcy. Some NFL officials, though, with the luxury of time and hindsight, later claimed they regretted the decision to play.
That was little more than a rewrite and sanitizing of history. There was absolutely no indication at the time that any of the NFL owners expressed any reservation about playing the game. Even though many of the players said that they questioned the appropriateness of not playing a game in the immediate aftermath of the president’s assassination, their feeling was inconsequential to the owners.
The NFL, though, does stop play for injuries. But the pattern is that the instant a player is helped off the field, the game quickly resumes. There was every expectation from the NFL’s mantra that the show must go on, no matter what, that the Hamlin injury would stop play and when he was taken away the game would resume.
This was clearly the one rare time when the players ensured that they, not the potential revenue lost from the TV broadcast, ticket sales, merchandise and concession sales, would be the prime consideration of the NFL.
Since then, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has gone into full public relations defensive mode about NFL safety. He has ticked off a number of health, safety and protective measures and rule changes that have supposedly made the game safer. Some of this is mere puffery, and some of this does represent welcome and much needed change.
But even Goodell candidly admits that, no matter how many steps the NFL takes to protect the players, the hazards in the game will always be there. Hamlin dramatically proved that — again.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.