The whole human experience

We have no choice but to reflect after a moment like last night and Damar Hamlin's injury

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Bengals fans light a candle for the Bills’ Damar Hamlin.
Bengals fans light a candle for the Bills’ Damar Hamlin.
Photo: Getty Images

I’ve spent a lot of time in this space trying to figure out the nature of fandom, the magnetism of sports, and where it all fits in our lives. The best I’ve come up with, and it’s probably not all that accurate, is that fandom is the allure of feeling part of something, of being part of a group, a sense of belonging, while sports acts as a distraction or bubble in service to that. We know it’s not really, but for three hours on any day it sure can feel that way.

There are so many things that go into what went on with Damar Hamlin on Monday night. The most jarring is that those small groups we’ve divided ourselves into to get that sense of belonging, and that bubble we create around it, is obviously completely shattered. The whole world descends upon all of us, and even harder to come to terms with is the fragility of life, which we spend most of our lives trying to ignore or defy, slaps all of us across the face.

It’s not football. Just like it wasn’t soccer when Christian Eriksen collapsed during Euro 2021. Just like it wasn’t hockey when Jiri Fischer or Rich Peverley or Jay Bouwmeester collapsed, or basketball when Hank Gathers died on the court. It’s easy to link it to football, and we may find out later that they’re connected, because no other sport is as accustomed to having stretchers and ambulances on the field. We’ve become accustomed to it, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why originally the officials, who must’ve been in the same daze we all were, originally wanted to restart the game. That’s their natural reflex, even if this all felt very, very different.

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A football field is not a setting we’re prepared to see a young man or woman, and one in the peak of health as one must be to be a professional athlete, have their heart stop. But there is no setting outside of a hospital that we are likely to be prepared for such a thing. And if you aren’t a medical professional, you probably aren’t all that prepared to see it there either. Again, a reminder of the fragility of it all and how quickly it can disappear on you is not something we are built to get our arms around. It’s not just football players ignoring injury and the threat to their health on Sundays, which we all do and perhaps Monday was a reminder of just how mentally strong those players are. We all do this to varying degrees in our daily life. Just getting to 7-11 for a sixer would be a lot harder if you spent the whole time wondering what could happen to you on the way.

There is good on display, as hard as that may be to fathom. The calmness and determination of the EMTs and training staff. The love from his teammates and opponents. The outpouring of donations to Hamlin’s toy drive in the aftermath. Lower down the scale, the professionalism of the broadcasters and analysts and reporters on ESPN, who handled it as well as they could. Relaying the information they had, never delving into speculation, unafraid to convey the emotion of the moment, without being ghoulish.

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Of course, there’s the bad side of the world and humanity too. I’m not going to give him the benefit of saying his name, because that’s what he wants, but he was out there who decided that someone’s life hanging in the balance by a thread wasn’t as important as making himself the story. Which has been his only job for far longer than it should have been. Farther down the scumbag scale are those using this to forward their grotesque agenda that’s completely unrelated. There was plenty of that around last night too if you wanted to find it.

The nature of employment and employers and that relationship was there, too, in the initial stages when it seemed like the game would be restarted over everyone’s objection, seeing all of these players as automatons without emotion to carry out the wishes of those with far more power and influence than them. And then sanity winning out, for once.

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It was all there, and it was all too much. None of us are constructed to take all that in at once, which is why we do our best to parcel it out and keep it separate as best we can. But sometimes we all get hit with it in a moment, and when it happens on national TV it feels even bigger than when it’s just one of us on our own.

We get to pause. Thankfully, both the Bengals and Bills got to pause too. They probably won’t get long enough, but they’ll get something. And eventually life restarts, because it has to. That’s life, that’s being on this planet, it’s just that we prefer to not think about it.