The Indecision of Mr. Goodell

I’ve had this ESPN article loaded in a tab for almost a week now, without reading it. I figured a bit of distance would make the article less likely to make me angry.

It didn’t work.

As I write this, the Buffalo Bills are gearing up for a playoff game in a few hours. The Miami Dolphins are in town, but it’s not even so much the opponent as the feel that maybe this is the year the Bills finally make that long-dreamt-of Super Bowl run–the one that ends in the Lombardi Trophy being brought, at long last, to The 716.

The Bills’ season has been a tough one with a lot of peaks and valleys–and one deep, deep dive that ended up being national news that put the NFL in a very uncomfortable spotlight. Before the 1st quarter was even over in the Bills’ game against the Bengals a couple of weeks ago, safety Damar Hamlin made a tackle and then collapsed of cardiac arrest. What unfolded was one of the scariest sequences ever seen on an NFL field, a scene that involved Bills trainers and medical personnel applying CPR to Hamlin, Bills and Bengals players openly weeping, Hamlin being whisked away by ambulance, and then almost a full hour of chaos and indecision as to the status of the game itself.

Historically, the NFL’s approach to catastrophic injuries has always been: Get the player attended to, get them off the field and to proper medical care, and then the remaining players get a few minutes to warm back up and get the game back on. It’s been the approach for every injury, including such awful ones as Mike Utley (who never walked again) and Kevin Everett (whose injury was later learned to be life-threatening). At one point somehow the word got to the players: “Start warming up, play will resume in a few minutes.” Some players did start warming up. Others did not, or could not. The game’s announcers reported that they had received word that the game would resume, but later NFL officials would deny this to the hilt. This strains credulity something fierce, as it’s hard to imagine announcers just making up something like that.

Yes, previous practice has been to eventually resume the game. However, the Hamlin injury was something else entirely. This wasn’t “stabilize the injured player”; there was no Utley-esque “thumbs-up” gesture forthcoming. This was CPR being administered to a player right on the field. This was literally “We do not know if this player is going to survive the next five minutes. We do not know if this player will leave the stadium alive.

As catastrophic as injuries like the Utley and Everett injuries were, what happened to Damar Hamlin was orders of magnitude worse.

And for the NFL to not have a policy in place for this is, to me, unconscionable.

I’ve had several discussions with other fans about this, some of whom agree with me, others of whom think that this was really an unforeseeable event, a circumstance nobody could see coming. The NFL couldn’t possibly have a plan in place for what to do in the event a player dies on the field.

And no matter how much I hear that sentiment, however earnestly expressed, my opinion remains: Yes, they could; yes, they should; and that they apparently didn’t is dereliction of duty.

The violence of the NFL game is well known. Hell, the violence of the NFL game is one of its selling points. There’s a reason the NFL surrounds itself with the trappings of military service and whatnot (which is partly why Colin Kaepernick’s silent, visual protests were so effective). There’s a reason the NFL drapes itself with war-like terminology. Offensive and defensive linemen are “in the trenches”. The quarterback is the “field general”. Teams are said to be going into battle.

Every hard hit gets replayed again and again, all the more if the field microphones happen to pick up the sound of the collisions. Many times you can hear the stadium crowds going “Oooooh!” after particularly violent hits. Football can be a beautiful game to watch, but let’s be honest: its popularity is in large part because football scratches the same itch that the citizens of Rome used to scratch by going to the Coliseum to watch lightly-armed gladiators square off against angry, starving lions. Football is a game whose dangers were quietly swept under the rug for many years, until enough former players were showing symptoms of brain damage that it couldn’t be ignored anymore.

Every fan I’ve known has said, at one point or another, “Sooner or later, someone’s going to get killed playing this game.” That’s not just random thinking by idle fans, either; former referee Ed Hochuli has indicated such fears in the past as well. Yes, what happened to Damar Hamlin is unprecedented, in that we’ve never seen a player stricken on the field to the point they literally required life-saving measures right then and there. But that’s not the same thing  as unforeseeable.

The narrative that took shape in the hours and days after the Hamlin injury was that there was indecision and a lack of clarity from the NFL offices for almost an hour, and that the decision to finally suspend the game was not a clear decision made for obvious reasons by the league’s highest officials (according to the NFL rules, it’s the Commissioner’s call and no one else’s), but rather a forcing of the NFL’s hand by the players and coaches who were understandably rattled by what they had seen happen to one of their own, up close and personal. Those players and coaches had a traumatic experience of their own, and the narrative quickly formed that it was those players and coaches, plus officials from the Players’ Union, who forced the NFL into finally shutting the game down.

The ESPN article confirms this narrative. The NFL really was in a state of indecision. Troy Vincent, one of the highest officials in the League, really did screw this up, and he really did try throwing other people under the bus when the League’s hour of clueless indecision became clear.

I refuse to excuse the NFL on this. The language could be so very simple:

In the event that a player suffers an emergency during a game that requires life-saving care up to and including CPR, the game shall be suspended, regardless of how much time of game play has taken place.

What happened to Damar Hamlin that night was awful and scary…but given the nature of the game, the last thing is was was inconceivable. Every NFL observer I know has conceived of an instance of a player losing his life on the field.

The National Football League generates money in the billions. The owners are the richest group of people anywhere. And the NFL runs events year-round that are huge logistical challenges. Crowd control, food concessions, safety and security–all of these are things the NFL does every single day. And when you’re planning for events of the magnitude of an NFL game–think of all the moving parts in making an NFL game happen, and how much planning has to be done for them, and how much policy has to be made to streamline it all–you also have to have plans in place for emergency events that take place during these events.

For this one circumstance to render the NFL clueless as to what to do, even for an hour, strains the imagination, and it would have been so even thirty years ago, before the NFL spent much of the last decade pushing hard on “safety” requirements like concussion protocols, limits on practice time and physical exertion therein, and so on. It should have been clear almost as soon as the ambulance was on the field that the game was done. The players should never have been in the position of wondering or warming back up, and the coaches and refs should never have been playing phone tag in the middle of the field with the NFL offices in New York City.

Obviously a big factor here is money. That game was the NFL’s wet dream: a late-season night game, nationally televised, featuring two of the best teams in the entire NFL with the home QB being a rising star and the visiting QB being virtually a superstar, with playoff position on the line. It was the single biggest Monday Night Football game in years, and before one quarter was up, it was in jeopardy. I’m sure that the NFL was suddenly terrified of losing the ratings money.

And then there was a week of indecision as to what to do with the game itself, now that they had suspended it and sent everybody home. Here, too, there needs to be an actual policy. Not a wish-list, not a “Hey, maybe we can do this!”, but an actual policy of what happens in the event a game is suspended.

NFL seasons are only 17 games long, with games happening once a week. The NFL isn’t like baseball where you can say “OK, Royals-Twins got rained out on May 12, so we’ll squeeze that one in when they meet again in July.” NFL games rarely get postponed, and almost never when they are in progress; usually it takes a natural disaster or major weather event to intercede. Games are more often relocated (this happened to the Bills earlier this very season, when a snowstorm forced a home game to be moved to Detroit) than outright canceled.

But here, too, major events sometimes have to be canceled. And the NFL had no idea what to do in that case.

I don’t pretend to know what the policy should be, though my personal opinion would be simply this: In the event of a catastrophic event requiring the suspension of an NFL game in progress, the game shall be entered into the standings as a tie. Who knows, maybe do like MLB does and posit an official length-of-game whereupon the score would simply stand as final. Maybe the NFL’s rule could be this:

In the event of a catastrophic event requiring suspension of a game in progress, the game’s score shall be counted as FINAL if less than 22:30 remains in the second half. If the game is suspended prior to that, the game shall be entered as a TIE in the standings, though all game stats shall still count toward the players.

That’s just a suggestion, but there really should be a simple policy governing these situations. Otherwise, you end up with the NFL taking days to think through various scenarios because this game happened to be important for playoff-seeding purposes. The decision to not make up the game would have come within hours of the game’s suspension if it had been some late-season tilt between two teams vying for high draft position–Texans-Colts, perhaps. The approach should be the same no matter what game it is, and I find objections along the lines of “Oh come on, the NFL has never been in this position before!” deeply unconvincing, because these are billionaires running billion-dollar businesses. If we’re going to accept the existence of billionaires (now there’s a subject for another time) and treat them as the elite of our society–which we absolutely do, let’s be honest–then we should also tailor our expectations of them upward.

My overwhelming impression on the night of Damar Hamlin’s injury was that the NFL was exposing itself as a flat-footed, indecisive mess, and not one thing I’ve learned since has altered that impression. Even now I can feel the NFL heaving a big sigh of relief: Hamlin is recovering well, though his football future is cloudy. The playoffs are here (Jeebus, Chargers, did y’all have a big turkey dinner at halftime or something?!), the Bills play the Dolphins today, the Bengals are still there and ready to make a run of their own, and so on.  There might still be some controversy, particularly from Chiefs fans who are pouty that they don’t get to host the AFC Championship Game if it ends up being Chiefs-Bills, but the feeling now from the NFL that I’m seeing is “Wow, we dodged a bullet there!”

I don’t think the NFL should be let off the hook, is all I’m saying. Expect better from your billionaire masters, folks.

And oh yeah, Go Bills.

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2 Responses to The Indecision of Mr. Goodell

  1. Roger says:

    what you said. all of it.

  2. This is the smartest and most insightful reflection I’ve read about this incident. Nicely done!

Comments are closed.