Let’s start here: If, in the chaos and silence and deep sadness of last Monday night, someone described what Sunday would look like, you wouldn’t believe them. You would love to, but come on. Damar Hamlin sitting up in his hospital bed, making a heart symbol with his hands, and tweeting “OMFG” after a Bills opening kickoff touchdown. This came after news of Hamlin Zooming into team meetings to flex and doctors saying his neurological function is intact. The football world, which had spent 48 hours searching for any good news, got so much by the end of the week it could barely keep up.
Sunday felt mostly normal. The Bills played a game. They won. Elsewhere, we all got a good laugh about Lovie Smith winning and costing a Texans team that went on to fire him Sunday night the no. 1 pick. Sean McVay and Sean Payton rumors took over the news cycle. Playoff seedings were hashed out.
Normalcy was good after last week—to a point. This should not be a one-weekend story. It should not be a one-month story or a one-year story. There is an impulse with any football injury to wait for some good news—the proverbial, and sometimes literal, thumbs-up. To assume upon the first positive sign that good things are happening and shift to the next tab on your computer. To move on. This is the sport where the team is supposed to win one for the Gipper, and we’re all supposed to feel warm afterward. Football is often more about mythmaking than valuing any actual player. And that treatment will surely come for Hamlin.
For now, though, the 24-year-old is still, as of this weekend, in critical condition. ESPN’s Coley Harvey reported, “The family is ‘elated’ to see the progress he’s made in recent days, but is still very much remaining patient through this recovery.” The most important part of this is that Hamlin can live a happy and healthy life. His road to a full recovery will be long, and America should not tune out before it’s completed.
The other lessons to glean from the past week—from the roaring applause for Hamlin at dozens of stadiums and arenas, to the toy drive that raised millions of dollars, to the hundreds of NFL players who wore his number on T-shirts over the weekend—come after. But they do matter.
If I could wave a wand and change anything about the way America watches football, I would make it so people understand the players at the most personal level. Their stories, lives, dreams, and hardships. There are a lot of fans, even those who watch football every week, who before Monday had never heard of Hamlin—the second-year safety who was in the middle of a solid season for one of the best teams in football. And my hope is that they never forget about him now. The point now is to value the humanity in football, a sport that too often ignores it.
ESPN’s Domonique Foxworth pointed out last week that NFL players get five years of health care after they are done playing, and only those who’ve played at least three years in the league qualify. Then there’s the way Hamlin’s contract—and many other contracts around the league—is structured, where players get paid less if they’re put on injured reserve. Ian Rapoport reports that there’s a deal in place to give Hamlin his full salary. But the fact you shouldn’t gloss over is that it’s still standard to give other players a pay cut when they get hurt in the most brutal professional game in the world.
“Split” contracts, like Hamlin’s, and per-game bonuses are common features of modern NFL deals, especially for players who lack leverage—which is almost all of them. Both are mechanisms to control costs in a game that already features short careers and instantaneous roster turnover. Players can bounce around offseason training camps, workouts, and practice squads and leave the game without enough money for a down payment on a house. Heavily guaranteed contracts are only for the sport’s biggest stars, and with the franchise tag, which can keep a star player on a team after his contract expires, many of even the greatest players never see the open market. The NFL is a TV product, and that means most fans view players as just that: numbers and helmets, replaceable at any position that’s not quarterback. No sport attracts more eyeballs—82 of the top 100 TV shows last year were NFL broadcasts—yet yields less introspection.
Most players who are cut on the first day of camp are legends in their hometowns—the type other parents complain about being able to play in youth football. They were often the best player on the field until their late teens and maybe throughout most of their college career. Then one summer day, they find themselves an inch short or a step slow and at fifth on the depth chart, they get caught up in a numbers game, they get called to the coach’s office, and they never step foot on a football field again. It is a cold, brutal sport that seems to generate less empathy each year.
There’s a YouTube video I watch, probably too much, that’s a sort of poem Bob Costas read before the 1993 Notre Dame–FSU game, one of the first football games I ever watched. I’m not even sure I knew the rules of football at that point, but I knew it was a big game. The intro is totally over the top, but I also think more things should be over the top for big games. Costas describes a prototypical experience for any national sport: kids imagining their futures in their backyards, waiting for someone to say they are special. This, to me, is what’s beautiful about football: Everyone has a story, and all of them are necessary to the sport. There are millions of kids in backyards, in public parks, or on the track at their high schools, and every step they take there matters when they come together with 10 other people who have been doing the same thing.
But just as everyone has a story, everyone has a struggle, and those are intensely private. Careers come to abrupt halts on random Tuesdays. A solid chunk of good players flush out of the league after their first contract, replaced by cheaper rookie players with no fanfare or press conferences. It just ends, with a note on Wikipedia saying they haven’t played in three years. The league is not set up for you to hurt for players, but you should anyway.
The only story that matters for now is Hamlin and his future. Doctors this week described him squeezing the hands of his loved ones once he regained consciousness. He’d said earlier in the season that when he was next to childhood friend and teammate Dane Jackson during a defensive backs prayer, he squeezed Jackson’s hand extra hard because he’d learned to take in every moment. “You never know when the last day you could experience something like this [is], so I’m cherishing it every moment I can,” Hamlin said. Hopefully everyone in football is doing the same this week.
Because of the last week, though, the story of this season should be the players: Hamlin and those who are supporting him in the Bills locker room and around the league. There is every possibility that there are people playing this game who will never look at football the same way again. There are hundreds of players still processing their feelings from that Monday night—and for many, that may continue forever. We know now there is a line in the sand that can grind football to a halt, where players and coaches say enough, and hopefully we’ll never have to see it again. Damar Hamlin is getting better; this story may ultimately turn out to be a relatively happy one. But let us never think of football players the same way after it.