I have been a football fan most of my life. I've watched hundreds, maybe thousands, of college and NFL games and I'm going to watch football this weekend.
My decision to do so was more of a reaction than a decision. This Sunday, I'm me, so I watch football. Not only do I love sports, but I also write as a reporter and commentator. I eventually started writing for the New York Times, in part because I was used to writing about Monday Night Football games and the ambiguity of penalty kicks. In many ways, football has given me the career I have now, the opportunities I have now, the platform I have now.
I didn't watch last Monday's game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals because the pressures of the College Football Playoff (and Michigan's loss to Texas Christian University) forced me to take a short break from the football world. But then something happened at that game, I got a text from a friend about something he saw while watching football.
In that moment, I saw Buffalo Bills safety DaMar Hamlin collapse after routine surgery and a heart attack, his teammates screaming in pain and fear, and Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs crying as Hamlin received CPR: a nine-minute spiritual. (Diggs reportedly took an Uber to the hospital to be with a teammate.) I've seen a lot of football, which means I've seen horrific injuries, but Monday night I thought I might have seen someone die. On the field – for the first time since 1971 in a professional football game.
I think there is still a huge pendulum swinging between big prizes and big pay to play football at the highest level. Playing in the NFL is a privilege. Of the thousands who played college football, only 1.6 percent played professionally. But even playing tight end in the NFL can come with risks. The average career lasts only three years.
NFL players are some of the most famous and highest paid professional athletes in the country. Even if you've never watched an NFL game, you've probably seen Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes at State Farm Business or Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But after many players retire, suffer financially or even go bankrupt, their names are largely forgotten, part of the decline of the world's most lucrative sports leagues.
Football is the most beautiful sport in the world for me. It's a logic game, a chess match, a whirlwind played at full throttle, and sometimes downright addictive. And those who play love it. When Hamlin woke up from sedation on Thursday, he was told who won the game when doctors passed their first question (in writing). But football can kill them, including those who play every year in high school. My favorite sport is soccer. The most profitable sport for me is football. But this sport destroys life and family. What do I and other sports fans owe?
I emailed the question to Domonic Foxworth, former NFL cornerback, former president of the NFL Players Association and ESPN announcer, who was candid and honest about how Hamlin and NFL players are perceived by those who watch the sport. "I don't know if I have a real answer to that," he said. He added, "When they do something amazing, they behave better than most people, and when they fail, they are inhumane."
He said the talk football fans have about athletes is race, money, fame, God knows what else. He added: “I believe there were millions of tragic things that happened to people across the country on Monday night, and Damar Hamley was the only one who felt the need to sympathize. I think it makes me feel better." But "I also wonder how we as fans would react if it was a careless penalty that led to the game."
Too often we see footballers as untouchable gods or useless idiots who can't do anything (like we can't help ourselves). But footballers are people first. After Hamlin fell, his teammates took off their hats, and some knelt next to him, others comforted him nearby. I saw familiar faces from my years of playing the sport and some I hadn't; Everyone is full of fear and worry for their friends, teammates, siblings.
Some fans in the stadium gathered there to pray for Hamlin, while others went to the hospital to hold a rally. They did this because we were all on the field watching the NFL game the other night; Real people participating in a beautiful and brutal sport for our entertainment.