Football fans grapple with violent side of a beloved sport

Jan 4, 2023, 8:35 PM | Updated: Jan 7, 2023, 9:53 pm

Youth players with the Gulf Coast Sharks Youth Football Club shake hands following a tackle footbal...

Youth players with the Gulf Coast Sharks Youth Football Club shake hands following a tackle football game on Sept. 10, 2022, in Gautier, Miss. The league's founder, Joel Fields, said youth football leagues are often unregulated. Some leagues allow children as young as five years old to play tackle football, he said. (Joel Fields via AP)

(Joel Fields via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — The harrowing scenes of Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse after suffering cardiac arrest have forced some fans to confront yet again a truth they’ve always known but hated to think about: Football, a game with violence in its DNA, can go from exciting and joyous to dark and tragic in a flash.

Now, as the Buffalo Bills defensive back remains in critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital, fans like Max Cerone are reflecting on their relationship with the sport they love.

Cerone, age 24 like Hamlin and a high school guidance counselor in the Buffalo area, grew up minutes from the Bills stadium, attending games from childhood with his dad “in pre-season and 90 degrees, or negative degrees and snowing.”

Settling in at home with two buddies to watch Monday’s high-stakes matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, Cerone and his friends watched in horror when only minutes into the game, Hamlin completed what seemed a routine tackle, stood up quickly and then collapsed limply, frighteningly backward to the ground, legs splayed, motionless. They watched stricken teammates weeping, kneeling and praying as medical staff fought to revive the 6-foot, 200-pound player’s stopped heart.

“People sometimes look at players like they’re in a video game,” Cerone said — as avatars, and fodder for fans’ fantasy leagues. “We watch them for entertainment, and complain when they’re not playing well. But these people are putting their lives on the line every time they’re going out there and putting on the pads.”

It’s exceedingly rare for a player to go into cardiac arrest on the field, and the injury Hamlin suffered wasn’t necessarily specific to footbal l, or even sports.

Still, it came immediately after a hit, and was a stark reminder that human beings aren’t built to crash into other human beings repeatedly at high velocity, as football requires. And for some fans with kids, it sparked more thought about whether those kids should be allowed to play.

Like many fans interviewed in the days after the game, Cerone doesn’t see himself abandoning football anytime soon. But he definitely wants to see the NFL continue to do more about health and safety, especially as regards to head injuries.

Former fan Laurie Goldberg has made a different calculation.

Goldberg, a public relations professional who spent years working with a sports trading card company, says she soured on the sport over the last decade as she learned more about traumatic brain injury and the risks of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, her awareness sparked by the 2015 movie “Concussion,” in which Will Smith played the real-life doctor raising the CTE alarm, and the book on which it’s based.

“I loved football, and I miss it,” says Goldberg, 63, originally from Baltimore where she grew up as an avid Colts fan, and now of Marina del Rey, California. But, she says, “I couldn’t watch anymore. I felt like I was watching the gladiators, watching people sacrifice their lives. This isn’t ancient Rome … Watching it just seems like we’re adding to the problem.”

Mark Oldfield, a lifelong Bengals fan, prefers to focus on the hope that tragic incidents on the field will lead to lifesaving improvements.

“I feel like this is going to be one of those moments that will actually make football better,” says Oldfield, 59, a teacher at Springmyer Elementary School in Cincinnati and a Bengals season ticket holder for the last 36 years.

Oldfield was sitting in the stadium, three rows from the north end zone, when Hamlin took the hit. He was also at the recent game when Miami Dolphin quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a frightening concussion on a play that knocked him unconscious and had him stretchered off the field.

Oldfield hopes Tagaovailoa won’t play again this season. But he notes there’s been steady progress in dealing with the risk of brain injury, though not enough. “As long as you see growth, that’s a good thing,” he says.

Khalil Springs, also 24, a Bills fan who works in real estate in Buffalo, agrees the sport has been gradually improving in terms of safety. “The game has changed — you can see it in the tackling where they try to let up a bit. People are aware of it, and that’s maybe all you can do in a sport so violent. It’s only going to get better.”

In a broader sense, Springs is certain that “something good will come out of this.” Actually it already has, he notes; fans have joined to donate millions to Hamlin’s fundraiser for a children’s toy drive, which now tops $7 million.

Like many, Jason Fond feels the Hamlin episode will lead to some kind of positive change in player safety. One small change, he notes, has already happened: the youth team he coaches sent an email the morning after the NFL incident, requiring that coaches be certified to use a defibrillator.

“How do we digest this?” asks Fond, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Nanuet, New York. “People who are against violent sports are going to say, ‘I told you so, this is awful, why is football even allowed?’ Other people are going to say ‘It’s a one-off and we’re never going to see this in our lifetime again.'”

He himself tends more toward the latter category, as a fan, coach, father, and player in his youth. He says the huge increase in concussion awareness makes it feel safer for kids like his 11-year old son, who plays tackle football (his three kids play multiple sports). Fond says he told him: “You get one concussion and you’re done.”

If his son wanted to play in college, where “massive people” are running at you, “that conversation would be a tough one for me,” he adds.

In some parts of the country, reverence for the sport can allow for a permissive attitude toward tackle football for young children, says Joel Fields of Biloxi, Mississippi, who founded the Gulf Coast Sharks Youth Football Club in 2021.

“We’ll be playing teams from all over the country, but we play mostly southern teams, and we’ve seen … five and six-year-old tackle football teams,” said Fields. He doesn’t think children should play tackle football until they are eight, and hopes Hamlin’s injury reminds coaches to teach kids safer ways to play.

For every parent, the calculation is different. Kim Staley, a Kansas City mother and account manager for a pharmaceutical company, is herself a huge football fan — “youth, high school, college, NFL, Monday night, Thursday night, Saturday and Sunday,” she quips. “I’m THAT mom.” She was horrified by the Hamlin injury and is praying for his recovery, as is her son, Hunter, 17.

But, says Staley, 55, “I would not stop my child from playing because of it.” She says too little is known about what caused Hamlin’s collapse, and that friends’ children in other sports have experienced more injuries than her son in football. Hunter hopes to play in college. “I support him playing the sport he loves,” Staley says. “Until he tells me otherwise.”

Lisa Burtin has made a similar call for her son Deon, also 17, who’s been playing since he was five, and also wants to play in college.

“It was definitely jaw-dropping, horrific,” Burtin said of the Hamlin injury. “When it’s life and death, everything stops. Nothing else matters.” She was glad to see the game was canceled. But she says there are still questions to be answered: “Was it because of the tackle, because of football, or something underlying?”

Burtin, 55, a nurse in Kansas City, said a bigger worry is head injuries, which are much more common.

But either way, she says, “You just don’t live your life in fear. My son wants to play football.” And as a fan, she says, she remains loyal: “I know it’s a rough sport. But I think it brings people together.”


AP journalist Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.

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Football fans grapple with violent side of a beloved sport