Opinion: The question we can’t avoid after what happened to Damar Hamlin

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Editor’s Note: Jeff Pearlman is the author of 10 books including his latest, “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.



CNN
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Odds are, you’ve never seen the photograph.

It exists, in the archives of the Detroit Free Press, a harrowing black-and-white image that found itself atop page 1D of the Oct. 25, 1971 morning newspaper.

There, lying face down on a muddy field, rests the body of Chuck Hughes, Detroit Lions wide receiver, who moments earlier ran 15 yards into the Chicago Bears secondary, stopped, grabbed with both hands at his chest, then collapsed to his stomach.

Wrote George Puscas, the Free Press’ executive sports editor: “From the moment Dick Butkus, the huge Chicago Bears linebacker, began waving frantically at the Lions’ bench, it was obvious that Chuck Hughes was in serious trouble.”

Doctors charged the field. An ambulance was summoned. The 54,418 spectators inside Tiger Stadium went silent.

Within a few hours, Hughes, just 28 years old, was pronounced dead of what turned out to be a coronary thrombosis – a blood clot that caused a heart attack. He remains the only NFL player to die during a game.

In the wake of Monday night’s tragedy in Cincinnati, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field, then was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he remains hospitalized in critical condition, I can’t help but think about Hughes and football and what the NFL wants us to see (and not see).

The National Football League is the land of soda. And potato chips. It’s the land of $169 embroidered jerseys and $59 hats (both available now at NFL.com! Free shipping if you order ASAP!). It’s the land of gambling apps and fantasy leagues; of shiny helmets and colorful uniforms and scantily clad cheerleaders and adults dressed as foamy barnyard animals. The NFL exists to entice your senses and pull your dollars and bring your suppressed aggressions to life every Sunday afternoon. It is BOOM! And POW! and POP!

What the NFL does not do well is … face reality.

When, in 1971, Hughes was removed from the field, league officials knew he was dead (“We reached him and there was no pulse,” said Dr. Richard A. Thompson, an osteopath on the scene), then took all of 10 minutes to decide the action must continue.

That’s not an exaggeration—literally within 10 minutes of Hughes’ lifeless body being loaded onto a gurney, Lions quarterback Greg Landry completed a 12-yard pass to Charlie Sanders. Afterward, members of both teams were horrified (“I wish they called the game off,” Chicago’s Bob Wallace said), but had little say. There was a stadium stuffed with fans. There was a division title to fight for. There were paychecks to be cashed.

Fifty-two years after the Hughes tragedy, the Bills-Bengals game was rightly suspended after Hamlin’s collapse. And as Hamlin—24-year-old Pittsburgh native and a man described as “charitable,” “endearing,” “loving” by those who know him—fights for life, we should hope for a full recovery. But it also seems reasonable to do what the NFL hates, and ask real questions about the sport so many of us love.

Namely, is this all OK? While what happened to Hamlin is still unclear, he suffered a cardiac arrest after what seemed to many observers to be a run-of-the-mill hit. Regardless, his story and Hughes’ still make it impossible, at a deeper level, for those of us who love and watch this game to avoid its moral questions. Is a game that results in so much pain and suffering a reasonable pursuit in an enlightened society? Should we talk more about the 2017 Boston University study that found Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 99% of brains obtained from NFL players, as well as 91% of college football players? Can we question the wisdom of grown men slamming into grown men? Can we debate whether youth tackle leagues are life-affirming, or insane?

In the aftermath of Hamlin’s collision with Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, one NFL-affiliated account after another tweeted that we must not watch the replay of the hit. That it’s too graphic; too disturbing; too disrespectful.

Some of the fans who agree with this are trying to show respect, but coming from NFL-associated voices, it started to sound too much like unofficial/official dogma: Drink your Pepsi. Eat your Tostitos. Wear your foam finger. Just don’t focus upon the carnage.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to see the reality behind the glitz in all its awful detail. These are actual people, with off-the-field lives and off-the-field endeavors. Hamlin is a son, a brother, a friend. He started his own toy drive for kids from his old neighborhood in the Pittsburgh metro area. “A generous, kind young man,” wrote Andrew Fillipponi, the Pittsburgh journalist.

Last night, shortly after Hamlin’s injury, a 53-year-old man was sitting inside his San Antonio, Texas home when he received a text from his mother. YOU NEED TO TURN ON THE FOOTBALL GAME. A PLAYER COLLAPSED.

Brandon Hughes was only one when his father died on the surface of Tiger Stadium, but as soon as he saw what happened to Damar Hamlin, the emotions hit hard. “Everything they were saying was so familiar to me,” Brandon, an employee at a mutual fund company, told me. “But they kept talking about how this is unprecedented, how that is unprecedented. I thought, ‘No, no it’s not. Not at all.’”

Brandon Hughes called his mother Sharon – now 77 but widowed at 24. She sounded saddened—both by the uncertainty of Hamlin’s future and the familiar echoes of past tragedy.

“All these news people are too young to remember,” she told her son. “But I’ve seen this before.

“I’ve seen it.”



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