Remembering Damar Hamlin and Kerry Carter in Buffalo – the horrific scene of his death on Monday night in 2002, 11 years after his tragic death
The game played on as if nothing had happened after a player was tragically paralyzed, is what we live in today.
Now that I’m removed from the game, I feel much differently about injuries, and players’ health, than I did when I was a player. Every day, I’m reminded of the brutal nature of the sport I love, feeling the physical pains from my nine seasons in the NFL. I have a titanium plate and four screws in my neck. I had multiple concussions and one in Buffalo where I had no recollection of what happened until I watched the game the next day. I remember vividly how scary injuries can be.
That’s why, as the horrific scene unfolded on Monday night – when Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed to the turf, and as tears came pouring down players’ faces as they prayed around him on bended knees – I started to feel nauseous just like my wife did that day in Buffalo years ago. As memories came flooding back, the mental wounds were reopened.
During my college playing days at Cardinal, Kerry Carter collided with a teammate, who ran up to make a tackle, when he was playing for Washington. From the neck down, he was paralyzed. Players cried and prayed. A few days after his 24th birthday, he died from an illness caused by the paralysis he suffered that day. My teammate is still traumatised by that collision.
Kerry told me it would take some time for everyone involved to come to terms with what they just experienced. It’s crazy to look back now and think that we were able to continue playing.”
Especially the trauma. It’s true. A teammate going down is traumatizing. The trauma of being hit so hard you see stars and almost pass out. There’s trauma when you see a kid. The trauma of seeing your own kid go down.
Everyone associated with the sport of football was watching. College coaches, high school and youth coaches and parents were watching. Someday we may look back and see that this was the moment where it all changed – where statements about the importance of player safety no longer rang hollow, and it became clear that prioritizing players’ health, both mental and physical, truly is the right thing to do.
Those coaches were cognizant of and concerned about their players’ mental health. After seeing the players teary eyes and looks of trauma, they decided it was not worth continuing the game.
The Bills offensive lineman told CNN that he was blessed to not have to keep playing. Athletes are treated as superstars by most people. Some people, like celebrities … but in that moment they treated us like people.”
There are still some people, though, who think that the players should have continued playing. You don’t have to search very long on social media to find that some people care more about their fantasy football team’s performance than the health and well-being of their fellow man. I guess that is something to be expected. That’s the way it’s always been.
This cycle of outrage and news column about the effects of violence on players is still going strong, even after all these years. And when Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a game last month. The shock was palpable. Like there was this small moment that got me. Hamlin’s teammate, the one who is standing, is, of course, White. In the days after it happened.
A few hours ago, I watched my sons play playground football on a warm winter day. They didn’t go to school for the new year.
I talked to a dad who played college football and has an 8-year-old son, which is one year older than my oldest. We talked about his son playing football in pads for the first time. My son is too young to hit that early. Or maybe ever. I just can’t.
I enjoyed rough play as a boy, and that’s why it was an override. I was aggressive when I was younger. I was a lot stronger than the other kids. I was faster. I wanted to tussle. I had wounds on my head, infections on my knees, and holes in my jeans. That was the kind of kid I was. The kind of kids who like to play football end up being the best players. You have to be your best all the time. There is no time to let go. I think that is intoxicating in a lot of ways. It makes you feel like you’re at your best at all times.
What kind of father lets his son play football? The Bengals-Bills game against Louisville, Tennessee, on August 14th, 2004
I am not easy to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. It often feels like when I explain why I joined the military to people who never did, they will think I am crazy. It’s just very difficult to fully understand it all unless you’ve lived it.
It is hard to fully explain why we do it – what it feels like, the highs, why we love it so much despite the risks. What do you think we would know now that we played?
Football and joining the military are the two things most parents ask me about. But each year, less of both. I recommend talking to people who have done it and reading them. One of the best pieces that I have seen is titled: “What kind of Father Lets His Son Play football?” and it was written by Luke Zaleski.
The Bengals-Bills game was supposed to be a marquee match-up to end an incredible week of late regular season pro football and an amazing bowl season of college games.
What happened during a young man’s near-death in Cleveland, N.B.A., last March? A tribute to the fallen aviator
Instead, it nearly turned into a tragedy, but one that united much of America in concern, in reflection and in sympathy. Hamlin remains hospitalized but has shown “signs of improvement,” and “appears to be neurologically intact,” according to the team. The Bills also said that Hamlin “is expected to remain under intensive care as his health care team continues to monitor and treat him.”
Hamlin is kind and generous. And his pain has galvanized a country that is so often and so deeply divided. This week in particular. In this difficult moment for him, and his family, Hamlin is inspiring others to be helpers as well. And that is worth celebrating as we enter a new year.
The commercial breaks were a mixed blessing — a respite for the broadcasters, whose own emotions understandably kept tumbling out, but a lousy time to peddle light beer, and an inconvenient reminder that in the absence of news about Hamlin’s condition (which would not be forthcoming anytime soon), and in the absence of an actual football game (which no decent person was in the mood to resume), this advertising money was the only reason the cameras were still rolling. We watched a young man’s near- death be modified in real time. The second time Buck repeated some variation on the phrase “there’s nothing left to say at this point,” it sounded less like a directive to the production truck — let someone else flail for a while — and more like a reproof to the audience. Why are you still watching? Why haven’t you changed the channel? What kind of person still watches a football game?
While a different sports universe separated only by a few TV channels, a player for the N.B.A.’s Cleveland team was pouring in 71 points against the Chicago Bulls. Mitchell is only the seventh player in N.B.A. History to top 70, and it was his highest single-game total in 17 years. Mitchell is powerful and balletic, with a 6-foot-10 wingspan that has earned him the nickname Spida; the Cavaliers, thanks in large part to him, will most likely reach the playoffs for the first time since 1998 without LeBron James on the roster. The euphoria in the stands, players being gobsmacked on the bench, and the audio commentary of the game were different from Mitchell’s night. When the team won in overtime, Mitchell was showered with water bottles as if to put out fire, and then they all posed for a picture with him.
The American Football Football Era: The Joe Louis ’82 Worldcupcup Series, Loss of a Superstar, and the Legacy of the Joe Louis Battle
What do you do when the population might have issues with the violence you’re providing to them through their television sets? The new rules about violence were created by the National Football League. They created penalties for hitting the quarterback in certain ways. And now we see if you’re concussed, you have to leave the field. You need to take a test. They brought the doctors in. They’ve they’ve done all kinds of things and they’ve been helped by television. Television doesn’t show the most horrible injuries.
I can’t get it. I can’t unsee. I try to look at TV and commercial breaks every time I close my eyes, but the only thing that comes to mind is a vision of that.
McMahon, famous for his toughness and durability, says in the lawsuit he played with a broken neck and ankle during his career without being told by team doctors and trainers.
More than a thousand former players have filed suits against the National Football League, claiming that they mishandled concussion related injuries. The NFL denies the claims.
And all this has led some people to say publicly that they’re done watching football. So, who are they? What is happening right now that affects how they view their favorite game? Is football ingrained in the U.S. culture that it’s too hard for their numbers to grow? I’m Audie Cornish and this is The Assignment.
It was very controversial from the beginning. And then it was big. It went from being a big and important sporting event to the biggest events in America. The Joe Louis fights began in 1936, with a rating of 37. The only thing that gets a higher rating in radio broadcasting in the United States are the fireside chats by the president.
In 1982, a South Korean boxer named Duk-koo Kim was killed in the ring from injuries he sustained during a fight with Ray Mancini, which was for a championship fight. And the other was a fight between the heavyweight champion of the world, Larry Holmes, and a gentleman named Tex Cobb. And the fight was so incredibly one sided. Just looked like a big, bloody mess. The referee didn’t stop the fight. And it was so controversial, it made all the newspapers around America and Howard Cosell quit. He would no longer the number one boxing commentator in America on ABC Sports called it a, you know, a barbaric sport that he wouldn’t have any part in anymore. And these two events happened just a couple of months apart. In terms of popularity in the United States, boxing never really recovered.
Fights moved off network television and on to pay per view, where they continued to draw an audience and dollars, but not the tens of millions of fans the sport had once had.
For a sport to really be very important in American popular culture. It has to be pervasive. You have to be able to hear it on the radio. It needs to be possible to watch it live on TV, and you have to read about it in the newspaper. It is going to shrink a lot when you switch to subscription and pay per view models.
A lot of people point to football being particularly made for television. The New York Giants and Colts played for the 1957 championship that went into overtime, and according to them, is the greatest game of all time. And they say it’s really made for television because of what the camera can capture. The field lines tell you where they are on the field. You can see each of the players. It’s pretty intuitive and easy to understand. And it’s the drama and suspense is there. It’s a fast moving and violent game.
Michael Socolow says football has been presented with some of the same issues that hurt boxing. Injuries, violence, long term health problems for players.
A Conversation with Terry Long, Mike Webster, Anathlee Webster and the Story of a Gamer that’s Losing Memory and Mental Illness
The shock of seeing a player go down, seeingCPR being administered on the field, and the players distraught faces makes a lot more sense than the expression of the national shock.
Exactly. I’d heard a lot about the concussion epidemic and the numbers. A study was done last year in which 99% of the NFL players brains were donated to science for research into chronic traumatic encephalomyelitis. And then I read about Terry Long and Mike Webster, who are two of the original kind of CTE cases. I think the brain was Terry Long’s, he was 45 when he died. He was identified as having the brain of a patient with Alzheimer’s, who was 90 years old. With the other player, Mike Webster, they were talking about how he was eating basically like Pringles for his meals and was catatonic in the fetal position for days at a time. And this is in his 40s, right? And hearing the individual stories about players who’ve suffered and I’m sorry for the gruesome details, especially speaking to someone who did play the game, and it’s hearing the gruesome details and hearing the stories from families talking about their their son, their father, their brother, their husband, who in their late 30s or in their early 40s already is showing erratic behavior, is acting. It has having intense mood swings, early signs of dementia, memory loss being described that they’re not the person that they were. And for me, I thought that all the good that I got out of football, which first of all, I got as a fan with no harm to myself, I thought that I couldn’t continue to do that. Knowing what I know about the harm that is done to so many players and that’s what ultimately made me stop watching.
When did I get involved with football? What happened to a young man’s fascination with pain and violence at the college football academy in Los Angeles
Wait, there’s more. He’s a sociologist at a university, where he is researching sports and violence against women.
I was a big New York Giants fan when I was a kid. I was like a kid who was reading the sports section of the newspaper when I was a stats kid. You know, cover to cover from the time I was like eight years old.
But at the start of the 2022-2023 football season, he stopped watching football. He wrote that he couldn’t unsee the harm it caused in an essay for The Guardian.
So I did play football. I was a player in the NFL for six years. I host a radio show in Denver. And I’ve also written a couple of books about my experience playing in the NFL, as well as a bunch of articles and pieces like the one that we’re talking about today.
Jackson says he didn’t consider his relationship to pain and violence until he retired from the Broncos after an injury ended his career. The game is still enjoyable for him. He was drawn to it the same way he was when his parents weren’t happy about him playing.
They were both public school teachers were concerned about the violence of the game. They wouldn’t let me actually put on a helmet and put on shoulder pads until I got to high school. That’s what they said. And I think silently they were hoping that I would forget about it. I would move on from that dream. I didn’t. So as soon as I got to high school, I signed up and started playing football.
That means someone planted the seed in your head a long time before you got involved with the sport that, hey, it seems a little violent and maybe it’s a bad idea.
How does that fit into this culture of devotion? I mean playing through injuries, not acknowledging what they are or how to get the medication you need to get through them, and just getting on with it. Like at what point do you feel like there’s a tipping point where what you described in high school becomes this thing that is all encompassing and at all costs to your health and body?
No, it’s not. It’s not happening until you’re done. It’s not. It’s not tell you. You walk away from the sport that you realize it can be a detriment in the real world because ignoring pain is a virtue. In sports. The guys who can ignore the pain the best make it the furthest. When you are hit with someone running full speed and wearing a hard plastic helmet with metal on it, it’s going to hurt very early in the day. Are I going to be able to overcome that, or is it going to stop me? There is glory on the other side of overcoming pain and that is how football players make it to the top.
So, you have fans who are so invested in their team, right? They are well-versed in everything about them. They buy tickets, they buy jerseys, they spend their Sundays watching and their Mondays watching. But they also spend time during the week paying attention to it. They really escape out of their everyday lives into sport in that way. And I think it’s a lot easier to do that to justify doing that, hen you feel that the athletes who you’re watching are equally or are actually much more invested in the game and they’re willing to fight through pain and they’re willing to play through it because the stakes to them are so almost life and death that they’re willing to risk injury. If that wasn’t the case, fans would not be able to see that football is life or death and athletes would be willing to pay for it.
I wondered if you were willing to ask the crowd what they were enjoying in a moment when you and others on the field were experiencing pain.
No, because I understood it. I was a fan of the 49ers when I was a kid, so I wanted them to go down in history as the team that put it all on the line. 49ers safety,Ronnie Lott was faced with a decision of whether to have surgery on his pinkie and end his season or cut the pinky off in order to keep playing. That’s how critical it was to him. It made me realize what I wouldn’t give to care for something like that, to put something like that on the line, because I was a fan who had devoted my time and money to this team. But there is at least one separation. Once you become that, you are no longer a fan. And so there’s definitely a disconnect between the pain that the players experience and the fans who watch them play.
You’re making my…You’re making the points that I would love to make, Right? So, when you said I’m a fan, I was a fan. The reasons that you’re describing is exactly why I couldn’t watch the game anymore because of the way that the players are treated and treated as commodities, treated as oftentimes only valuable insofar as they can create value for the team. That is really what I mean by ownership. Sometimes coaches and management as well. It was really for ownership to keep the business going. When players get injured in their second year and never play the game again, they are discarded from the sport, like they’re not worth anything anymore, like they’re not worth anything anymore.
It’s what I was saying is it’s rare that a fan has a moral conflict with it so much that he walks away or she walks away from the game because it draws everyone in. The NFL broadcast do a really good job of not lingering on the consequences of the violence. You see somebody laid out on the field. They’re going to cut to commercial as quickly as they can. They cannot escape that kind of thing like what happened with Hamlin, but it is very rare that someone dies on the football field. We’ve seen broken neck, and a lot of other injuries. The game always continues. The game goes on.
You mentioned that the game goes on it. Even with the Damar Hamlin case, the game did get stopped, but it got stopped because the players and the coaches decided they didn’t want to play anymore. The scary event happen on our TV screens when we hold up the case like a freak, it is where we can’t avoid seeing it. They couldn’t stop the commercial but they wanted the moneymaking machine to keep turning.
What have you learned in the last few months? Daniel Sailofsky: When you’re out of the game, what are you doing after you’ve left?
I don’t think it’s a turning point moment. I do think the conversation has been different in the last couple weeks. Absolutely. You’re not going to see this type of injury again or very often, because it’s such a freak injury and it’s so unusual.
So people can kind of compartmentalize. Yes, they can say this isn’t part of the brain injury question or they they can take it out of that column and move forward.
Daniel Sailofsky, here’s where I can talk to you about what you’ve learned as you’ve gotten out of the sport, right? For him, it’s different once you’re on the field, because you’re no longer a fan. It’s different after you leave the game. What are the tipping points for leaving a group of friends?
What Happens When Football Gets Bound, And Why It’s Not Played, Right? — Tipping Point Towards Avoiding Violence in Sports
I actually do have like a very clear tipping point in my mind, which is…I’m currently writing a book about violence and harm in sports. In football and ice hockey, concussions, long term injury, and also in rugby and boxing were part of the research. I came across a few different pieces about early research by Dr. Bennet Omalu. It is an important movie, but not a great one, and it was played by Will Smith. That guy is the one that came first.
The sports league is a very successful one. And a lot of people are tied to that machine. A lot of television networks are tied to that machine. That is another reason why I think it won’t go anywhere soon.
So that’s my point. That’s taking boxing down to only the violence, Right? That’s not the beautiful science, etc.. Could football go the way of a sport where at a certain point it is distilled down to just its violence for the people who enjoy that aspect of it? Because that is the path I saw with boxing, right? It’s no longer considered a sport that people enjoy and instead it’s become a violent sport that takes even less care of those who participate in it.
I would say this it’s baked into our society and there is… It isn’t just hitting each other. Daniel fell in love with so many strategies that people are interested in them. It is a ballet of sorts. People appreciate the poetry of the game, but are more interested in the athletic moves that will prevent you from being hit because you are trying to avoid being hit. Sometimes the most exciting football moments are when violence is avoided. And I think—
What Is Happening in our Populous Culture as a Football Fan? It’s Hard to Know if Football is Going to End
I’m just saying there was a world where there were entertainments that seemed so baked into our culture. Nothing could be done to replace them. And then things did.
I would say that’s me. but I would say that’s true also of a lot of cultural practices in general, like just because something has existed. I think we have both said that we are not sure if football will end in the near future because it is baked into the culture and used as a main justification. The fact that it’s baked into the culture is another thing. The question of whether it should exist is a different one. There’s all sorts of behavior that people might enjoy that we do not allow them to do because of the risks and the harms associated with it.
It sounds like you are going to have a lonely existence as an ex- football fan. I mean, I assume you had a whole social life built around this. Right?
I did. I have a lot of sports and sports-related things in my social life that I am okay with. It does help that I don’t live in the same city as I used to watch football with lots of people. But look, I watch a lot of other things I watch mens and womens basketball…
Is Football Alive and Well: A Conversation with Daniel Selassie at the NFL Players’ Convention in Denver (with an interview with Nate Jackson)
Nate, is he going to be a lonely person or do you are you hearing more people saying, You know what, let me back away? Maybe there’s some things I can’t unsee and maybe I’m done here.
I believe there is a couple. Not a lot. Football is not going away. It’s a lot of money. In a world where television is dying. Professional football is keeping it afloat.
I agree with you. The only distinction I think it’s important to make is that’s a reason that it will continue to exist, but not a reason that it should continue to exist.
Nate Jackson, what’s your message to fans who might be listening to this conversation and who might be in various kind of states of debate with themselves?
My message to fans would be that when a player is hurt, they may not return to the field. You might not see them again but you have a long road to recovery that is fraught with mental illness and lack of self-worth. And so my message to fans would be, if you’re going to love the player, you have to love the person behind the helmet. If you’re going to love the team you have to love the men who put themselves in harms way to win the game. As we have more access to the players in their lives, more fans are discovering that. I believe they are more humanized. I think we have a long way to go, but that would be my message to fans.
That was sports sociologist Daniel Selassie. He is a lecturer at the University and he is also the author of “Slow Getting up: a Story of NFL’s Survival From the Bottom of the Pile.” He can be heard on the radio in Denver.
The Assignment (Episode 3 of The Assignment) I: The Production and Editorial Design of The Audio Production of The Electroweak Process
That’s it for this episode of The Assignment. New episodes drop every Thursday. So, please listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts. Please take some time to give us a rating and review if you like the show.
CNN Audio produces The Assignment. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Lori Galarreta. The associate producers are Isoke Samuel, Alison Park, and Sonia Htoon. Haley Thomas is a senior producer. Our editor is Rina Palta. David Schulman is the creator of mixing in sound design. Dan Dzula is our technical director. Abbie Fentress Swanson is our executive producer and special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish, thank you for listening.