We won't stop watching

Ira Lacher was an assistant sports editor at the Des Moines Register during the 1980s.

Wait for it.

As Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin continues to lie, inert, connected to whatever devices keep him alive, someone is sure to call for American football, a sport unique in the world, to be banned.

Certainly what occurred on the turf of Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night, January 2, 2023, bears introspection. How are you supposed to feel when you witness a 24-year-young man almost dying, in full view of tens of thousands of spectators, and millions more watching on high-definition television?

“My prayer, aside from seeing Hamlin leave that Cincinnati hospital able to live a fruitful, productive life, is that we never watch a single snap of an N.F.L. game the same way again,” wrote columnist Kurt Streeter of The New York Times.

What way would that be?

Yes, players get hurt playing football. Muscle tears, strains, fractures, and other traumas occur in a sport when 265-pound human beings collide with each other hundreds of times a year.

Those who have followed the game for a long time will recall some of the more egregious injuries: the paralyzing helmet-to-shoulder-pad hit on New England receiver Darryl Stingley by Oakland’s Jack Tatum in 1978, which paralyzed Stingley for the rest of his shortened life; and the compound fracture to Joe Theismann’s right leg when it was crushed by a knee belonging to New York Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor during a 1985 game. Others will evoke Detroit’s Chuck Hughes’ fatal heart attack during a game in 1971.

But Hughes’ death had nothing to do with the violence of football. He had an undisclosed heart disease, according to a postmortem. It will be a while before doctors can tell us why Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. It may have something to do with repeated hits to his chest area endemic to football. It may not.

But we need to separate what happened Monday night in Cincinnati from the shoot-from-the-hip brickbats that always seem to accompany any such tragedy in sports, no matter how aberrant.

For all the vitriol about the violence in football, at all levels of the sport, and although 74 deaths were directly attributed to it from 1931 to 1969, that number has been reduced to six.

It is plainly ridiculous to put on sackcloth and ashes while urging that a business which brings in a staggering $22 billion annually be abolished. And even we didn’t allow ourselves to be crass about the economic impact of football, we would be ignoring the reality of who we are as a species.

Our obsession with violent sport didn’t begin the day the Roman Colosseum hosted its first playoff game between Christians and lions. As long as human beings possess brains that are stimulated by observing violence—”The impact of violent representations is analogous to a stimulant drug,” Dr. Nigel Barber wrote in Psychology Today—we will embrace an avocation providing that stimulus.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

This is our brain on violent sport. “[It] appears that as spectators become habituated to violence,” Dr. Barber concluded, “they need a larger dose.”

And so, we have a sport that attracts the attention of tens of millions of men and women, who revel in the exploits of 75-yard touchdown runs and acrobatic touchdown catches, and of 33-point comebacks, such as the Minnesota Vikings pulled against the Indianapolis Colts in December. But always in the big hits.

We will and should send thoughts and prayers to the family of Damar Hamlin. We will and should debate how we can make football “safer,” by instituting rules governing on-field play and about the equipment that perversely turns protection into weaponry. We will and should debate why such a sport seems to encompass a cast of overwhelmingly Black men performing for what seems to be overwhelmingly white ticket-buying audiences in stadiums.

But we are not going to change our brains. We are not going to stop rubbernecking at the scene of horrific traffic accidents. We are not going to stop watching movies and TV shows that seem nothing more than endless gun battles and explosions. We are not going to stop playing Call of Duty.

And we are not going to stop watching football.

Top photo of Roman arena in Pula, Croatia by Ivana Vrnoga, available via Shutterstock.

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