Last week came the horror of watching Buffalo Bills security guard Damar Hamlin suffer a heart attack live on TV, followed by days of national scrutiny over the violence of America’s most popular sport. This weekend, the story turned upside down.
On Saturday night, both teams huddled in midfield, then knelt and prayed together, before the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars faced off for a league title and a playoff trip. On a Sunday afternoon, usually macho CBS pre-game show, Boomer Esiason confessed his love for each of the other panelists separately, causing another former player, Nate Burleson, to say, “I love you too bro.”
Ahead of the kick-off in Sunday’s game against the Bills and the New England Patriots, CBS’s single-game announcer, Jim Nantz, then delivered the NFL’s message: “What we’re really seeing this week is a snapshot of humanity at its best. ” “People came together and put their differences aside,” said Nantz’s partner in the broadcast booth, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. “What started as a tragedy has gradually turned into a celebration of life,” he added.
So what’s the final take? If Hamlin hadn’t recovered from his windpipe, speech, tweet, and neurologically intact, it probably would have been different. Public good wishes would still pour in, but there would be no joy or a sense of shared pride and shared purpose. Like movies and other forms of popular culture, football is ultimately a national barometer. And last week it seems to have illuminated the country’s disorderly situation – a longing for unity, or at least a longing stance, in times of violence and also polarization.
Looking back, what made Hamlin’s crash last Monday night even more shocking was how he followed the most routine of interventions. At this point, it’s a fair estimate that no game has been watched online this often during the entire season. The television broadcast did not continue to show the struggle with a sense of decency. Instead, the cameras lingered over the players’ agonizing reactions, showing his teammates on the field as he gathered around Hamlin’s body, crying and praying, while paramedics struggled to save him for nearly 10 minutes.
The scene may have evoked to some minds famous paintings by artists such as Giotto, Titian, Caravaggio, and Dürer, showing the mourning crowds surrounding Jesus as he was taken down from the cross or buried. For centuries, church and museum goers have been gaping at these images of violence and despair, with almost the same mix of fear and confusion. America certainly didn’t invent tire stretching.
Or vigorous sports. Twenty-nine Formula 1 drivers died in Formula 1 or other racing cars in the 60s; In the 70s 18. Auto racing was popular in Europe and was considered even more attractive because it was dangerous. Things changed after the death of supreme Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna in 1994. New regulations and technologies have arrived. A culture of safety emerged.
In the United States, leaving football and violence open is nothing new. According to The Washington Post, between 1900 and 1905, 15 years before the National Football League was founded, at least 45 college players died from neck and back fractures, concussions, and internal injuries. The death toll so alarmed Americans that President Theodore Roosevelt and some university presidents pressed for reforms. Today, we witness the clashes of more and more spectacular brutality, gathering tens of millions in front of our screens in anticipation of the reappearance of modern players like John Wick and Spider-Man, far better trained and equipped than they were a century ago. .
Sure, we know that sometimes they don’t. The long-term effects of concussions have become an increasingly public issue alongside gun control, mass shootings and crime. But Americans juggle conflicting feelings about the violent game. Some parents and even former NFL stars discourage their young children from playing football. At the same time, football transcends politics, gender, race, age, and class like no other sport in the United States. According to Nielsen, NFL games accounted for 82 of the 100 most-watched television broadcasts last year, making it the last remaining form of water-cooling entertainment in our atomized culture.
It’s no coincidence that professional football as a national sport embraced television in the late ’50s and ’60s, marketing the brutality of football as a counterweight to the complacency of baseball. The league has produced documentaries and highlight shows that are unforgettablely narrated by the voice of God, John Facenda, over the years. “The game is a time warp where the young dream of growing up and the old remember youth,” he called. As writer James Surowiecki puts it, NFL Films “at the same time sought to convey the gritty reality of the game and legend it in Homeric fashion.”
This was also the time of America’s metastasizing debacle in Vietnam. A 1967 documentary, “They Call Pro Football,” glorified NFL defenders, such as American soldiers in Da Nang, and on “find-and-destroy” missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Head coaches like Vince Lombardi were hailed as tactical generals who led selfless armies of clean soldiers to victory. The nation was on the verge of disintegration, and football needed its own counterculture representative in the new American Football League, who came in the green and white jersey of the New York Jets. As campuses flooded with anti-war protests, Jets playboy quarterback Joe Namath, with his long hair, fur coats, and bedroom eyes, predicted that the Jets would beat the NFL’s ultra-corporate Baltimore Colts and win Super Bowl III.
When the Jets won, football didn’t just survive the turmoil. It turned out richer, more popular and unified than ever before. At least on Sundays Americans could imagine the end of Hollywood despite their split.
We are again a divided nation, and more than ever we read the meaning of the game and what it says about us, willingly or unwillingly. Buffalo fans this Sunday suggested that Hamlin’s recovery is a metaphor for the resilience of a city battered by storms, decline and crime. As if on a mark, the Bills returned the opening kick-off against the Patriots for a touchdown, as the team had done for the first time in 18 years. Buffalo backed out in the second half, biting a nail in the first half. “We all won,” Hamlin tweeted from his hospital bed. As announcer Nantz said: “Love for Damar was definitely in the air. Not just here. All in this league, in this nation.”
Then he asked the melancholy question that seemed to sum up the week. “Love, support, prayers,” he said, “why can’t we live like this every day?”