Football kills and you cannot make it safer

The recent incident in an (American) football game where Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest after getting hit hard in the chest during a tackle has once again highlighted how dangerous this sport is. Football authorities and fans tend to quickly label these as isolated events and any actions they have taken in the wake of them have focused on extra protective gear or changing the rules to reduce some dangerous practices.

But Irvin Muchnick writes that those remedies merely skirt the fundamental issue and that is that this sport kills.

One month and a day before Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin came frighteningly close to becoming the second in-game fatality in NFL history, he was ejected from the Amazon Prime Thursday night game for an illegal hit on New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. See it for yourself on YouTube. Hamlin, a defensive safety, blasted Meyers helmet-to-helmet, preventing a touchdown catch in the end zone. As everyone reading this undoubtedly knows, on the aborted Jan. 2 edition of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” Hamlin made a clean tackle against a Cincinnati Bengals receiver, and then collapsed seconds later, likely from commotio cordis, or percussion-induced cardiac arrest.

I juxtapose these two plays in Hamlin’s recent career to underscore the point — which was made properly neither in the initial horrified media reaction nor in the feel-good sequel — that “making football safer” is an illusion. For every band-aid fix of the rules, there’s a Newtonian equal and opposite reaction, a cosmic game of life-and-death Whack-a-Mole. In the second Hamlin play above, he was dutifully following the recently emphasized “heads up” tackling doctrine (which is already almost always impossible to execute at game speed). The result left him unconscious on the field, without a pulse, seconds or minutes from death.

There have been at least a dozen football deaths, below the professional level, from chest-trauma cardiac events. The classic Journal of the American Medical Association article on the syndrome was published in 2002. Lead author Barry Maron, a prominent cardiologist who maintains a registry of known death cases, also chronicled deaths that involved incidental and intuitively sub-lethal contact (such as a teacher who was elbowed in the chest the wrong way while breaking up a playground fight). But around a fifth of such fatalities occurred in sports, including, of course, from chest blows in football.

He argues that remedies like extra padding and the like may actually make things worse.

And for God’s sake, in the wake of the Hamlin catastrophe in Cincinnati earlier this month, no more smoke signals to the future contractors of Concussion Inc. to start developing a better protective pad for the precordium (the area in front of the heart). Players are already armored up the wazoo, and the only thing that has accomplished is to give them a false sense of being bulletproof.

Few people realize this, but boxing’s transition from bare-knuckles to gloves made the sport far more lethal. Padded gloves protect the hand inside them more than the head it hits, and the diminished fear of broken hands made punches harder, faster and more confident, worsening the damage at the other end.

The problem of football won’t be solved by changes on the periphery. The problem of football lethality is football. The truly dangerous aspect of the sport is playing it.

Since the human race has never been able to legislate stupid, we should just play on. But at least let’s get our public schools and public fields out of the business of blood sport.

I agree that we cannot eliminate football as long as there are people who are willing to watch and pay to see this modern day equivalent of gladiator combat where inflicting pain is part of its appeal. So professional football is likely to be around for a long time. But to play it has to be a choice made by adults.

But I agree with Muchnick that there is absolutely no reason why our schools (and I would add our universities) should be giving their stamp of approval to football by sponsoring teams. Professional football teams like to have schools and universities play the game so that they can serve as minor leagues for them to scout talent. But that is not the purpose of those institutions whose primary purpose is education. Those institutions are meant to nurture healthy minds in healthy bodies, not damage minds and bodies by subjecting their students to a brutal contact sport.

The major collegiate sports body the NCAA dropped that other gladiator activity known as boxing from the list of sports it sponsors, a sign of disapproval. In response an organization known as the National Collegiate Boxing Association sprang up to sponsor boxing but the number of participating colleges is far fewer than other sports in the NCAA. Boxing also seems to have largely disappeared in public schools in the US. Let’s hope that that will be the fate of football too.


  1. moonslicer says

    What??? Abolish football? Next thing you know you’ll be wanting to abolish religion . . . Oh. OK.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Well, since we’re fantasizing, how about abolishing capitalism (at least the more extreme versions)? That would save far more lives.

  3. Holms says

    Answering the headline… yes you can. The risk can never be entirely eliminated, but its injury and death toll can be improved. Fairly substantially in fact. As has been pointed out here multiple times before, eliminating the silly armour is the best thing that can happen to the sport, especially if paired with the elimination of certain tackles.

    As your source then details.

  4. another stewart says

    This particular risk (commotio cordis) is not specific to American football. If I am correctly informed it’s commonest in baseball.

  5. says

    Same with mountain climbing and dirt track racing -- all motor sports really -- boxing, etc. All dangerous sports should not be part of an educational curriculum.

  6. John Morales says

    One month and a day before Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin came frighteningly close to becoming the second in-game fatality in NFL history […]

    Wow, nearly the second in-game fatality in NFL history!

    So, there’s only ever been one. In the history of the game.

    Truly, a sport that kills.

  7. Denise Loving says

    @9 The NFL is a minority of football players. Football injures and kills students, both at the high school and college levels.

  8. John Morales says

    I wouldn’t know, Denise, not being USAnian.

    Are you suggesting that the chances of death are far lower in the NFL than at either the high school and college levels?
    Seems a tad counter-intuitive to me.

  9. Denise Loving says

    There are a lot more players on school teams than professional teams. I’m in Toronto, but I read US national news, and it’s not uncommon to read of a death. Most seem to be from heat stroke, dehydration, and related causes, not trauma, but dead is dead

  10. prl says

    There’s a list of in-career deaths of American Football players on Wikipedia.

    Of the in-game deaths, the largest number overall (including both NFL and College football) seem to be brain injury and spinal cord injury.

    That aligns with the main safety concerns being reported on about injuries in Rugby Football (Union and League) in Australia: concussion and neck injury. Body armour isn’t worn in either code in Australia. The safety efforts seem to be mostly directed towards bans on dangerous tackles.

  11. outis says

    Actually, if what I remember is correct, it’s not the in-game deaths that do them in (mostly), it’s the neurological damage incurred during their career that shortens their life.
    Obviously, after years of crashing headfirst into each other, it’s no surprise that their brains are well and truly scrambled in the same way as, for instance, boxers’.
    I could not find the article (in the Atlantic, maybe) I read years ago, but here’s something:
    evidence of higher rate of cardio and neuro damage, and no wonder.
    I also get the impression everyone in the US is trying to ignore this matter as hard as they can. Ah well.

  12. another stewart says

    @11: Apart from the raw number of players (as mentioned @15) commotio cordis risk peaks in the late teens; Damar Hamlin is pretty much at the upper limit of the risk range.

    @5: It seems to me that commotio cordis is informed speculation; at least Science Based Medicine thinks so.

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