As Damar Hamlin Stays in Hospital, N.F.L. Won’t Resume Suspended Game This Week

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Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin remained in critical condition on Tuesday after he went into cardiac arrest during a prime-time N.F.L. game, a frightening reminder of the ever-present risk of serious injury in America’s biggest sport that has the league facing one of its worst crises in decades.

Hamlin’s injury, following what looked like a routine tackle, has the N.F.L. again answering questions about player safety in a season marred by high-profile injuries.

With millions of fans watching on television, Hamlin, 24, collapsed in the first quarter of a crucial matchup with playoff implications on Monday night, forcing the league to suspend the game. As Hamlin lay on the field motionless, medical workers feverishly worked to restart his heart. Players were in tears, the stadium went silent and fans watched along in distress as a young athlete’s life hung in the balance.

After Hamlin’s heartbeat was restored and he was taken off the field by ambulance, the coaches conferred with the head referee and league executives. The players soon walked to their locker rooms. About 30 minutes later, the league postponed the game, and said on Tuesday that at minimum it would not be played this week.

The question of violence has always hovered over N.F.L. contests, even as the league’s popularity has soared. Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was no torn knee or busted ankle. It was potentially life ending, the most frightening type of injury in a sport built on frightening collisions.

In a brief interview on Tuesday, Jordon Rooney, Hamlin’s marketing agent, said Hamlin’s family remained hopeful.

“They’re strong, they’re optimistic,” Rooney said. “They’re being as patient as they can be.”

The Bills said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that Hamlin remained in critical condition at the intensive care unit of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Dorrian Glenn, an uncle of Hamlin, told reporters outside the hospital that his nephew had to be resuscitated twice, once at the stadium and again later at the hospital. He added that Hamlin had improved in terms of the amount of oxygen needed to be given to him through a ventilator. “They’re trying to get him to breathe on his own,” Glenn told NFL Network.

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the N.F.L., said in a memo sent to teams on Tuesday that the league had not decided whether to finish the game. The Bills and the Bengals are vying for the American Football Conference’s lone bye in the first round of the playoffs heading into the last weekend of the regular season. No immediate changes were made to the slate of games scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Goodell said.

The N.F.L., which earns about $20 billion annually, has become America’s biggest league despite exposing its players to significant health risks. It has had a high number of close contests and jaw-dropping plays this season, and been richly rewarded by broadcasters and sponsors with its biggest games still ahead.

About nine minutes into Monday’s game, Hamlin tackled Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin stood up, took two steps and collapsed backward. His body went limp.

The reaction was swift, predictable and confusing. There were expressions of support. Sensing the gravity of the situation, many N.F.L. teams sent well wishes to Hamlin on Twitter. Millions of dollars were donated overnight to a fund-raiser that Hamlin had previously set up to pay for toy drives and other activities for children.

  • N.F.L.’s Violent Spectacle: The appetite for football has never been higher, even as viewers look past the sport’s toll on players’ lives. Damar Hamlin’s collapse should force a reconsideration, our columnist writes.
  • Outpouring of Support: Athletes, public figures and fans took to social media to share prayers and concern for Mr. Hamlin, while thousands donated to a GoFundMe page he had set up for a toy drive.
  • Injury Disclosures: The N.F.L.’s protocols for dealing with the health consequences of football are heavily scrutinized, but the league typically makes public only certain information about injuries.

At the same time, television viewers heard Joe Buck, ESPN’s play-by-play broadcaster for the game, say that the players were told they would have about five minutes to get ready to play again. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow could be seen tossing a football.

“That’s the word we get from the league and the word we get from down on the field, but nobody’s moving,” Buck said.

In a news conference about three hours later, the N.F.L. denied there was any consideration given to restarting the game.

“Immediately, my player hat went on,” Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president for football operations and a former cornerback, said to reporters. “How do you resume play after you’ve seen such a traumatic event occur in front of you in real time?”

Whatever the truth, football fans — and even former star players — are asking again whether the game they enjoy is worth the risk. Ryan Clark, a former defensive back who is now an analyst on ESPN, said many players fool themselves into thinking they are modern-day gladiators when in fact they are highly paid entertainers smashing their bodies for a living.

“We use these cliches. ‘Going to war,’ ‘willing to die,’ ‘give it all,’” Clark wrote on Twitter on Monday night. “That’s all talk. It’s a game. A game! You never suit up & think you’re not going to make it home.”

Coaches, too, appeared to be grappling with the challenges of football and an event that has thrown their hard-and-fast rhythms off-kilter. Coaches for several teams canceled scheduled conference calls with reporters, though many continued their preparation for this weekend’s games. Many practices were scheduled to resume on Wednesday.

Hamlin’s collapse was far from the only example of football’s “next man up” culture in a league in which the lack of guaranteed contracts incentivizes players to return to action as soon as possible. Indeed, Hamlin had joined the Bills’ starting lineup in September as a replacement for safety Micah Hyde, who has been out with a neck injury.

On Sunday, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Nick Foles left a game after being sacked by Giants linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux, who celebrated the hit as Foles appeared to convulse with a rib injury.

Also on Sunday, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Josh Sweat left the field on a cart after trying to make a headfirst tackle on New Orleans Saints fullback Adam Prentice. Sweat stayed on the ground facedown for several minutes and raised his arm to the crowd as he exited. He later vowed on Twitter to return this season.

In September, Bills cornerback Dane Jackson injured his neck and was immobilized and driven in an ambulance to a hospital in Buffalo. He was released the next day and returned to play in October.

Ten days later, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was taken to a hospital after slamming his head against the turf in a game against the Bengals. Tagovailoa raised his hands and his fingers were splayed, a gesture called a fencing response, which can be a sign of brain injury.

The concussion highlighted an investigation that began the prior week into how the Dolphins responded after Tagovailoa appeared to be concussed in a game against the Bills. The league subsequently updated its concussion guidelines to prohibit a player from returning to play if he shows ataxia, a term describing impaired balance or coordination caused by damage to the brain or nerves.

Tagovailoa was again diagnosed with a concussion after being sacked on Dec. 25 in a game against the Green Bay Packers.

Injuries and even deaths are not uncommon in football. Every year, a handful of high school football players die, some from heat stroke, some from broken necks. Families and communities are shattered. Yet while participation in high school football has slipped in recent years, it remains the most popular sport among boys.

The N.F.L. is in another realm because it has turned the game into mass entertainment, complete with cheerleaders, packed stadiums and big-name sponsors. Few fans were watching the preseason game in 1978 when New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed after a hit by Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders. Now, many more games are played in prime time, and big plays — even injuries — swiftly ricochet across the internet.

“Broadcasts are far more vivid and intimate these days, and an event like this resonates further when it’s on national TV in one of the biggest games of the year in a social media era,” said Michael MacCambridge, the author of “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.”

At the same time, he said, teams and stadiums are better equipped for emergencies these days. “When Stone Johnson was paralyzed, it was like 15 to 20 minutes before an ambulance arrived,” he said, referring to the Kansas City Chiefs player who died in a hospital in September 1963, a little over a week after his neck was broken in a preseason game.

The N.F.L. knows the game’s violence has turned off some fans, and has watched families steer their sons into baseball, basketball and soccer. The league takes pains to tell fans how it is trying to “make the game safer.” In 2019, the league produced a video on how to recognize and rescue players who suffer sudden cardiac arrest.

But tackle football centers on bigger, stronger and faster players crashing into one another, and no amount of dollars, training and good intentions will change that. The best the N.F.L. can do is reduce risk, not eliminate it.

Emmanuel Morgan and Joe Drape contributed reporting.