Damar Hamlin and the Existential Crisis of ‘Monday Night Football’

A seeming eternity of live television had elapsed since Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old safety for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed on a field in Cincinnati after a hard blow to chest. “Monday Night Football” had ground to a halt, and like everyone else who had been tasked with speaking on air while emergency medical personnel tried to save Hamlin’s life, the ESPN studio anchor Suzy Kolber was at a loss for words. “There’s really not much more we can say,” she said, ashen-faced. “I think we’re all feeling the emotions, we’re all joined in prayer together.” Then she paused and, with a measure of disbelief, teased a commercial break: “And we’ll be back.”

Sports fans in general, and football fans in particular, have been coarsened over time to gruesome injuries — to the sight of joints bending in unnatural ways and grown men writhing in pain while their teammates huddle up, yards away, for the next play. What happened to Hamlin on Jan. 2, in front of a prime-time audience of millions, was a chilling reminder that silence and stillness can be far worse. You could see that this time was different, because you could hear it: Hamlin fell silently, and then he lay there silently, and then the hush around him spread, fast, from the playing field to the sidelines and then over the stadium. Eventually it reached the broadcast booth, where Joe Buck, ESPN’s play-by-play announcer, tried to let the images of sobbing players and the jarring sight of an ambulance on the field do the talking, and tried not to sound too astonished that league officials appeared intent on resuming the game. A broadcast production crew has a whole playbook for these situations:which replay angles to show and a sense of how often to show them, a list of bromides announcers can use to paper over the discomfort while we wait for the fallen player to give us a reassuring thumbs-up as he’s stretchered off the field. But this time there was no thumbs-up. ESPN just kept repeating the playbook, over and over, until all we could see was the artifice of it.

It was around 8:55 p.m., late in the first quarter, when Hamlin first went into cardiac arrest. The N.F.L.’s commissioner, Roger Goodell — the only person in the league with the authority to not just temporarily suspend the game but also postpone it altogether — didn’t officially do so until 10:01. This left the corporate broadcaster with an impossible hour of live television to fill: The game was, technically, still in progress, making it difficult to simply cut away to whatever was on ESPN2 or to skip ahead to SportsCenter and its flawless anchor, Scott Van Pelt. The network’s “Monday Night Football” crew performed with remarkable grace, under the circumstances. But for viewers, it was still an hour of talking heads’ acknowledging that there was nothing to say, with seasoned on-air personalities all but pleading into their earpieces to get off the air. A live N.F.L. broadcast is a preposterously large, complex and expensive operation that exists for one mass-entertainment purpose. Suddenly that purpose wasn’t merely gone; it was borderline unmentionable.

The commercial breaks were a mixed blessing — a respite for the broadcasters, whose own emotions understandably kept tumbling out, but a lousy time to peddle light beer, and an inconvenient reminder that in the absence of news about Hamlin’s condition (which would not be forthcoming anytime soon), and in the absence of an actual football game (which no decent person was in the mood to resume), this advertising money was the only reason the cameras were still rolling. We were, in other words, watching a young man’s near-death be commodified in real time. The second time Buck repeated some variation on the phrase “there’s nothing left to say at this point,” it sounded less like a directive to the production truck — let someone else flail for a while — and more like a reproof to the audience. Why are you still watching? Why haven’t you changed the channel? What kind of person still cares about a football game now?

More on Damar Hamlin’s Collapse

  • A ‘True Leader’: As a professional football player and community mentor, Damar Hamlin has reached two of his life goals: making it to the N.F.L. and helping others along the way.
  • N.F.L.’s Violent Spectacle: The appetite for football has never been higher, even as viewers look past the sport’s toll on players’ lives. Mr. Hamlin’s collapse should force a reconsideration, our columnist writes.
  • Danger Across Sports: Mr. Hamlin’s collapse has brought attention to sudden cardiac arrest and the vulnerability of athletes from the youth leagues to the professional ranks.
  • Faith and Football: The outpouring of public piety from players and fans shows how Christianity is embedded in N.F.L. culture in a way that goes beyond most sports.

This was uncharted territory, the guy on the television more or less telling us to turn off the television. The very program itself was having an existential crisis. There was no game to show, no update on Hamlin’s condition to share, no cutting to black. The moment Joe Buck said “CPR,” “Monday Night Football” was over. Only it couldn’t end.

Just 250 miles across Ohio, in a different sports universe separated only by a few TV channels, Donovan Mitchell of the N.B.A.’s Cleveland Cavaliers was pouring in 71 points against the Chicago Bulls. It was the highest single-game total in 17 years, and it makes Mitchell one of only seven players in N.B.A. history to top 70. Mitchell is powerful and balletic, with a 6-foot-10 wingspan that has earned him the nickname Spida; the Cavaliers, thanks in large part to him, will most likely reach the playoffs for the first time since 1998 without LeBron James on the roster. On the emotional spectrum of sports fandom, Mitchell’s night was the polar opposite of the tableau in Cincinnati: jubilation in the stands, gobsmacked teammates on the bench, escalating delirium in the announcers’ voices. When the Cavaliers won, in overtime, Mitchell’s teammates kept drenching him with water bottles, as if to put out flames, and then they all posed together for a photo with the night’s hero.

This was all of the reasons we watch sports. But it didn’t merely happen on the same night as Hamlin’s injury; the two events unfolded in lock step, over the same hour of real time. On social media, many fans experienced both dramas at once. As I traded texts with friends about Mitchell’s swelling point total — 58! 66! 69! 70! — I kept toggling apps and scrolling through Twitter, where stats about the basketball game sat alongside uninformed speculation about blunt-impact cardiac arrhythmias and ghouls blaming Covid vaccinations for Hamlin’s collapse. This wasn’t just any regular-season N.F.L. game either: The Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals are Super Bowl contenders, and their matchup had major playoff implications, and it was “Monday Night Football,” a multibillion-dollar American institution. Then, suddenly, by swift consensus, the game didn’t matter at all.It was almost generous of Skip Bayless, the Elon Musk of sports trolls, to step up and tweet a take about not postponing the game abominable enough to give the entire platform someone to unite against in disgust. (He even managed to offend Shannon Sharpe, the ex-N.F.L. tight end with whom Bayless hosts Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed,” enough for Sharpe to stand him up for their broadcast the next morning.)

But social media also created avenues for catharsis. Hamlin was an unheralded sixth-round pick coming out of the University of Pittsburgh, near his hometown, McKees Rocks, Pa. He cracked the Bills’ starting lineup only in September, after the first-string safety Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury and had to leave the stadium in an ambulance. In 2020, Hamlin set up a GoFundMe to support a toy drive back home in McKees Rocks, and as of that Monday afternoon, just before the game, he’d raised about $2,500. By Friday, the helplessness we all seemed to be feeling on Hamlin’s behalf had poured more than $8 million into his toy drive.

On Monday night, though, you could find Mitchell on one television broadcast, soaked and smiling. On another was the Bills’ wide receiver Stefon Diggs, his cheeks wet with tears. I couldn’t decide if there was something subhuman about juggling these two emotions, trying to compartmentalize them on the fly, or if that was closer to the definition of being human. Mostly I thought about Hamlin. I thought about how I’d feel if I were the one on the ground, how badly I’d just want people to look away, stop filming, turn off the television, go do something else, go watch Donovan Mitchell drop 71 on the Bulls — anything but watch me fight for my life in front my teammates, my friends and my mother, on the field during “Monday Night Football.” And I thought about Hamlin waking up, opening his eyes and hearing about his toy drive.

Source photographs: Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Devin Gordon is a writer based in Massachusetts. He is the author of “So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets — the Best Worst Team in Sports.”

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