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Sport’s reckoning with risk

Sport’s reckoning with risk

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24-year-old quarterback Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a game of Monday night football. Could his injury be a turning point for the NFL?

It was nine minutes into a game of ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

“Here’s Higgins wide open to midfield and lowers the shoulder for 13…”

ESPN

Millions of Americans were watching as the Cincinnati Bengals player Tee Higgins tackled Damar Hamlin to the ground. 

It seemed like an ordinary run of events in a lively game of American football. Until…

“And now another Bill’s player is down. Can’t tell exactly who that is. Maybe Hamlin…”

ESPN

Damar Hamlin took a full-speed hit to the head and chest during that tackle. After briefly standing up, he collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. 

After 10 minutes of CPR, he was rushed to hospital and discharged a week later.

His family said the whole thing came as a shock.

Interviewer: “Did he have any heart condition or any health issues?”

Dorrian Glen: “He was healthy as an ox. He’s healthy. In the weight room, running, you know, a professional football player, right? So really, really healthy. So this is a surprise to everybody. I mean, we all seen the hit. It wasn’t even that… it wasn’t that big of a hit, so…”

CNN

We don’t know exactly why the Buffalo Bills player went into cardiac arrest during the match, or whether it was a direct result of the tackle.

And it is rare for an elite athlete to come so close to death on the pitch – rarer still in the NFL. 

But serious injuries are common in the sport. And Damar Hamlin’s collapse wasn’t the first of the season.

“Tua rolling left, and down he goes. And… uh oh… well we saw last week, and he went down, he got up, it was wobbly… The training staff comes out…”

ESPN

Three months before, the quarterback Tua Tagovailoa collapsed to the ground during a match against the Cincinnati Bengals. 

His hands were raised and fingers bent as he fell, which can sometimes be a sign of brain injury.

Also this season, another player appeared to convulse on the ground during a game, eventually leaving the pitch with a rib injury.

NFL veteran Benjamin Watson recently called American football a “100 per cent injury sport”. And last week, the US President Joe Biden also discussed its dangers.

“I just think it’s… I don’t know how you avoid it. I think working like hell on the helmets and the concussion protocols, that all makes a lot of sense. But it’s, you know, it is dangerous. You gotta just acknowledge that.”

White House

So, could Damar Hamlin’s brush with death be a moment of reckoning?

***

“You’re about to meet the real life doctor who discovered that insidious disease found in the brains of athletes who suffered repeated blows to the head, and who paid a terrible price.”

ABC

Over the past decade, headlines have focused on one particular issue: concussions.  

That’s because head injuries are associated with a high risk of death for players. A 2017 study found that 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had CTE, a degenerative brain disorder associated with repetitive brain trauma. 

The NFL did eventually respond, making significant changes in an attempt to reduce injury. 

They’ve introduced protocols that discourage head-first tackles, and have medical professionals on the field to respond to injuries. 

But as NFL quarterback Brett Favre said to CNN, these changes can’t eliminate the risk altogether…

“How do you make the game safer? You don’t play. You know, I mean, is that gonna happen? No. I think the NFL is here to stay, obviously.”

CNN

This has implications for other sports too.

Last year, concussion rates in elite UK rugby were the highest since records began. Studies also suggest that the concussion risk for female athletes is even greater, and far less understood. 

Sporting bodies have reacted to research. Rugby has introduced “smart mouthguards” that prevent some concussions and professional footballers in Scotland are banned from heading the ball in training the day before and the day after a game.

In fact, Scotland was the first country in the world to have a single set of concussion guidelines for all sports.

But there is no international standard to prevent concussion – or any injury – in sport.

***

Tua Tagovailoa returned to the NFL in September and in December, after another head injury, he was placed on concussion protocol again.

As for Damar Hamlin, he woke up in hospital three days after collapsing mid-game. The first thing he did was scribble a message on a whiteboard. 

It said: “Did we win?”

This episode was written and produced by Patricia Clarke.

Concussions in women are poorly understood – and the consequences are deadly. To learn more, you can listen to an episode of Visible Women with Caroline Criado Perez called The concussed female brain.