This isn’t a secret, but you have to go to the bottom of my résumé to find it. Through the first decade of my professional journalism career, I was a sportswriter and editor. Lots of high school stuff. But I did venture into the big time. An interview with Mickey Mantle. And writing about Division I college football. The University of Texas Longhorns. The Washington State Cougars, I covered them for a few years.
And, in what was one step below that, what was then called Division I-AA, the University of Idaho. It was pretty good football. Very pass-happy. I watched virtually all of it from high above, as God might. From the press box. A view not unlike the one most college and NFL fans enjoy from their living-room couch, watching the game on television.
There was one Idaho game where I was faced with a tight deadline. As the game drew to a close, I wound my way down through the stands, and onto the field, which my press pass allowed me access to, so I could get a quick handful of interviews just as the game ended.
And it’s from the sidelines, standing alongside the players, that you really feel what the highest levels of football are all about. The speed of the players is startling. The hits, and the sounds of the impact of player on player, and players getting slammed to the artificial turf, is alarming. That close to the action, you see smears of blood on the uniforms.
The expertise of unnoticed professionals comes into play. Each team’s trainers know how to quickly get injured players off the field.
And I never thought much about any of it. Few people involved with the sport – coaches, players, sportswriters, fans – speak of it. Maybe they laugh it off. Or they worry about whether a key player will be available for the next game. But the violence is accepted. It is a part of the game.
Injury reports are as much a part of the game as each coach’s game plan.
Death? It’s rare. Almost non-existent as a calculation. Injuries? Not rare at all. Many football players carry their injuries with them through the rest of their lives. Knees that no longer function. The thinking process is fractured by blows to the head, bringing on early-onset dementia. Medications that are intended to heal lead to addictions.
You know where this essay is heading. Damar Hamlin.
Football fans watched on television as the Buffalo Bills defensive back died on the field, was brought back to life, died at the hospital, was brought back to life.
A decent guy and, by all accounts, a socially conscious human. Hamlin’s recovery is being celebrated today as the sport’s feel-good story of the moment.
But pull back from that wonderful news, and look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture of the violence that is the nature – and is celebrated – in football.
Years ago, in those sportswriting days, I was told of a high-school football coach who taught his players that, in the seconds after a referee had blown his whistle to stop play as they were running up to a pile-up of players, if someone from the opposing team was lying there, with his hand on the ground, unprotected… step on it. Step on the guy’s hand. Maybe break it. Put him out of the game.
This retrograde sportsmanship isn’t limited to football. I also knew of a high-school wrestling coach who spent an entire practice session teaching his team how to break an opponent’s nose by smashing it into the mat.
Why do we celebrate auto racing, when that kind of behavior behind the wheel of your family vehicle gets people killed?
As a sportswriter, I wrote about boxing matches without giving it a second thought. But this is a sport where the object is for one man – or woman – to disable an opponent, through tactics that you’d be arrested for if you engaged in them under everyday circumstances.
It’s a dangerous world out there, folks. People die of heart attacks while mowing their lawns. People die after their houses catch fire in the middle of the night. People choke to death while eating at restaurants and church picnics.
We weigh our choices. We take our chances. We suspend the rules of civil society if we can post the results on a scoreboard. And place a bet on the outcome.
The larger picture is not that an audience watched Damar Hamlin nearly die after making a tackle, on what looked like just about every play in football.
Football is not going away, and neither are chicken wings at the church picnic.
No, the larger picture is our willingness to accept a course of action as an inevitability over which we have no personal control. Close your eyes, there are more football games to come. But as philosophers from Euripides to Socrates to Albert Einstein to George Carlin remind us: Question everything.
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