On Jan. 2, 2023, many people watched in horror as Damar Hamlin, defensive back for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed from cardiac arrest after making a tackle in which he took a hard shoulder to his chest. After receiving CPR, he was taken off the field and hospitalized for over a week.
Fortunately, there have been signs of his recovery as Hamlin has been released from the hospital, returned home, and has visited his teammates.
Immediately after the incident however, there were real questions of what would happen? Would the game continue even if Hamlin suffered a life-threatening injury, and possibly even died on the field? Reporting has revealed that despite Hamlin being in critical condition and being taken off the field in an ambulance, the executives that run the National Football League (NFL) were directing players on both teams to resume play, and telling the ESPN commentators covering the game that it would resume.
In the period that followed, despite feeling pressure to play, players and coaches on both teams discussed amongst themselves and decided there was no way they would continue. D.J. Reader, a Bengals defensive tackle, said that despite receiving instructions to warm up and play again, doing so would have been “damn near impossible.” To most players, the idea of continuing the game was unthinkable, even though both teams were competing for playoff positions. This was in fact a work stoppage or strike of sorts by the players.
While Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was an extremely unlikely incident, in reality it is just another example of how violent and deadly a career in the NFL can be. Life-altering injuries are commonplace in the NFL. Because the NFL is a business run for profit and the owners know it is such a violent sport, various economic structures in the league are purposefully set up to punish players who get hurt in the league to ensure they are paid as little as possible.
For example, the NFL is the only major professional sports league in the U.S. where the vast majority of contracts are not guaranteed. This means players are only paid year to year even if a headline says someone signed a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. On top of this, it takes playing three full seasons in the league before players qualify for any pension benefits, while the average NFL career only lasts 3.5 seasons due to injuries, so there are many players who don’t last long enough to even earn a pension. Finally, if players are injured during their career, the NFL is notorious for fighting against paying disability claims for players, with some players saying that the motto of the NFL disability program is “delay, deny, and hope we die.”
To illustrate this, NFL journalist Ian Rapoport reported that although Hamlin has signed a four-year, $3.64m contract, a clause in his contract meant he would receive a 45% salary cut this season if he was placed on injured reserve. So not only did he almost lose his life, now he is likely facing a huge cut in his salary as well.
NFL players are treated by their bosses like pieces of equipment that can be discarded, not unlike how many of us are treated by our bosses at work. By refusing to continue playing in the wake of Hamlin’s injury, the players of both teams drew a line that they weren’t willing to cross. This can be an inspiration for all of us.