The sports world was shocked on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during the Monday Night Football game between the Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest from an impact to his chest and had to be resuscitated on the field.
As a result of this horrifying event, the NFL postponed the rest of the game and eventually declared it a “No Contest” between the two teams. Hamlin remained in critical condition for the next two weeks but improved steadily and was released from the hospital.
For a league often criticized for lacking empathy around player safety, the decision can be viewed as a turning point for the organization.
Some in the media also took note of the league’s response. Nick Wright of Fox Sports’ “First Things First” tweeted, “The medical professionals on the field, in real-time, in a totally unprecedented situation, made active decisions that not only saved Damar Hamlin’s life, but it appears, kept him whole.”
This matchup was not just a throw-away game; the Bills and Bengals were competing for first place in the American Football Conference (AFC).
Significant playoff implications were attached to the game, but the organization put them aside following Hamlin’s unprecedented event.
The NFL had to decide whether to continue playing, postpone, or cancel the game. The league chose to put players’ physical and mental health first — for what seems like the first time in a long time.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Troy Vincent, NFL vice president of football operations. “Immediately, my player hat went on. How do you resume play after you’ve seen such a traumatic event occur right in front of you?”
On Jan. 3, the NFL released a memo discussing mental health resources. “Earlier today, the Head of Player Engagement and Team Clinician for each club received information from Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti about mental health and support resources that are available to your players and staff,” wrote Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner. “Additional resources, including on-site services, can be available for any club that wishes this assistance.”
The NFL virtually owns Sundays from September to February. Despite concerns over concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the league has grown in popularity. The many public relations firestorms it has experienced in the past two decades have not slowed its growth.
In the wake of Hamlin’s health scare, the teams and fans stepped up to assist in any way they could. The entire league rallied around the Bills’ safety, changing their Twitter icons to “Pray for Damar” avatars.
Players and teams donated substantially to the toy drive Hamlin organizes yearly, including Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.
The GoFundMe page raised over $2 million since the incident. It will go toward providing underprivileged children with holiday gifts.
In line with the NFL’s on-field actions, the whole sports world rallied around Hamlin. It might serve as a public image boost, but the organization showed it is capable of compassion amid a crisis.
As for Hamlin’s condition, he managed to get out of this without any damage to his neurological function. Each day since the incident, his condition improved. He woke up from his coma on Jan. 6 and had his ventilator removed. Since then, he regained his speech and motor function, even Facetiming his teammates to tell them he loved them.
Hamlin was released from a Cincinnati hospital, then transferred to one in Buffalo before being released on Jan. 9. We can only hope this never happens again. If it does, the league has a thoughtful blueprint for moving forward.