John M. Crisp: But what if Damar Hamlin had died?

Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, almost died Jan. 2. His heart stopped after a blow to his chest during a “Monday Night Football” game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Thanks to prompt attention by team trainers and paramedics, Hamlin survived, and America enjoyed a collective sigh of relief when he was released from the hospital Jan. 11.

An interesting national conversation developed during Hamlin’s first few days in the hospital, when it wasn’t at all certain that he would survive. Some commentators talked about Hamlin’s injury in terms of reassuring rationalizations: Football players are well aware of the risks that they take, they choose to take them and they are very well compensated for accepting the hazards of a very rough sport.

Others tried to put Hamlin’s injury into perspective: All sports — indeed, all human activities — involve risk. They pointed out — accurately — that Hamlin’s cardiac arrest could have been induced by any blow to the chest at just the wrong moment, by, for example, a hard-hit baseball or a collision with another soccer player.

Some praised the way that Hamlin’s unfortunate accident served to “bring us together.” Thoughts and prayers from players, coaches and fans went out to the injured player and his family. Hamlin’s GoFundMe charity campaign was inundated with donations. Niagara Falls was illuminated in blue in support of Hamlin.

And a precious few commentators appeared to be ready to acknowledge and confront an inconvenient element of modern American life: Football has become so violent that we enjoy our national game only at the expense of the health and safety of its players.

Nevertheless, buoyed by the news of Hamlin’s improvement, players, owners, coaches and fans resumed the games the following weekend as if nothing had happened.

But what if he had died? Would his death have been the event that provokes us to reevaluate the cost of our passion for football?

I suspect that the answer is no. We simply love football too much. The pleasure we experience from a very exciting game makes it easy to accept the rationalizations of football’s most passionate apologists, even if they ring hollow under careful examination.

In fact, while Hamlin’s injury was extremely serious, it was atypical of the damage that football inflicts on its players, much of which is invisible.

Hamlin is at the top of his profession, he is being well compensated and, at age 24, he’s old enough to have some understanding of the risks he’s taking.

But his situation says almost nothing about the million high school football players, of whom, according to the Ohio State University College of Public Health, only .023% will reach the NFL.

The carnage is well documented. Every year thousands of players in high school and college suffer joint injuries — knees, shoulders, ankles — that will have a lifelong impact on their health. A small percentage will be paralyzed for life. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three high school and college players will die from brain and spinal cord injuries yearly.

But much of the damage from football is more insidious. Growing research indicates that chronic traumatic encephalopathy starts early in players’ careers and is more pervasive than previously understood. This merely confirms what is already obvious: The brain is a marvelous, complex and delicate organ that is bound to suffer if we hit it too much.

This information might make us uncomfortable, but it’s also easy to ignore. It’s like climate change: We know it’s happening, we know that we should take action to fix it but we’re having such a good time with fossil fuels, it’s just hard to stop. It’s the same with football: It’s so much fun we can’t bring ourselves to give it up. It’ll take a lot more than a mountain of injuries and few deaths to change our minds, even if all the carnage is in service of no more than the effort to move a ball from one end of a field to the other.

John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.

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