My mother said she held her breath during every second of my high school football career. She only enjoyed my games when I was on the bench.
I only got to start for my JV team because the first string safety got a concussion in practice and missed the entire season.
I witnessed head injuries, broken limbs and even players taken off the field in ambulances. We kneeled for nearly an hour when a kid on the other team was knocked out and taken to the hospital with God-knows-what injury.
Then we strapped up our helmets and took the field for the rest of the game.
Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s tragic injury on Monday is the latest example of the extreme risks football players accept every time they walk onto the field. Although the severity and impact of Hamlin’s injury is unprecedented in NFL history, the sport has a long track record of physical and emotional devastation.
Awareness of football injuries is rising. The risks of repeated head trauma are still being uncovered. It seems like every Sunday another star player is knocked unconscious.
More alarming is the fact that many of these players return to the game despite clearly suffering concussion symptoms. Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is the unfortunate poster child of this gross neglect of player safety. If the largest league in the country can’t protect its players, how can we protect ours?
Even at the youth and high school level, players suffer severe injuries, head trauma and even death on a frighteningly regular basis — injuries like the ones I witnessed in high school.
The U.S. averaged over 10 football fatalities per year between 1990 and 2010, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine. In 2021, 17 players died from football-related causes, according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research.
In 2011, Bleacher Report named football the third-most dangerous sport behind boxing and MMA. If you wouldn’t let your kid get punched in the face for fun, why would you let them charge head first into another child for fun?
It’s no secret that football is violent and dangerous, but Hamlin’s injury sent a shock to the system. Monday Night Football averages nearly 14 million viewers on ESPN. A national audience watched live as a 24-year-old man collapsed on the field and received medical attention for minutes that felt like hours.
National media outlets carried the Hamlin story and many raised questions about the morality of football. The New York Times published a collection of opinion letters condemning the “brutal” and “dehumanizing” treatment of professional football players.
“So many times in this game… we use the cliches… ‘I’m ready to die for this. I’m willing to give my life for this. It’s time to go to war,’” Former NFL safety Ryan Clark, who was rushed to the hospital during a 2007 game after suffering a splenic infarction, said on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “I think sometimes we use those things so much, we forget that part of living this dream is putting your life at risk.”
Football is such a large part of our society — and, quite frankly, our economy — that we often forget the extreme toll it takes on players. So many parties benefit from the on-field action while the players’ lives are squeezed out.
How much money and glory is our long-term health worth?
It’s impossible to say that football is all bad. It teaches teamwork, leadership, work ethic and more. But so do other sports. And other sports simply don’t kill and maim players like football does.
What kind of game is that? What kind of dream is that? What parent wants to see their child in that situation?
I know I don’t. My children will play other sports.
The opinion desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org