NFL player safety is in question after a season of frequent, horrific injury

Image courtesy of Tennessee Titans via Wikimedia Commons.

At 8:55 p.m. on Jan. 2, Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field in the first quarter of an NFL game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills. Hamlin stood up after tackling Bengals tight end Tee Higgins but abruptly collapsed around midfield, receiving immediate medical attention. As details slowly emerged during the broadcast, Joe Buck, a commentator for ESPN, explained to TV audiences that Hamlin was administered CPR for nine minutes on the field. In between the commercial breaks that followed, audiences watched an ambulance take Hamlin off the field. Meanwhile, on-field cameras showed close-ups of immense distress on players’ faces on both teams. The league postponed the game, as Hamlin’s status was unknown for the remainder of the night. 

In the week following the injury, Hamlin regained consciousness and ultimately showed no signs of neurological damage. He was released from the hospital after five days, a best-case scenario for the entire NFL.

Despite Hamlin’s success in recovery, it is worth remembering the gravity of his injury. An update on Hamlin’s status was not shared until Tuesday afternoon, leaving those aware of the situation believing that they potentially witnessed someone die on the football field, as horrific of a thought as that was. 

While such a chilling injury certainly opens the door for a discussion about the potential dangers of professional football and opportunities for better player safety policies, the specifics of Hamlin’s injury make it unlikely to sway in-game player safety rules. According to NPR, It is likely Hamlin suffered a rare heart injury which occurred on a routine tackle play. This sort of injury is not Football-specific and is actually more common (still very rare) in projectile sports like hockey, lacrosse and baseball. Additionally, the medical team’s response to Hamlin’s injury demonstrated NFL personnel’s potential to adequately handle life-threatening injuries.  

A lot of credit can be given to NFL staff and policy for the handling of this situation, but many equally concerning and much more preventable injuries still plague the NFL, such as the fate of Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa in 2022.

Tagovailoa’s year was marked by repeated head injury. He suffered two confirmed concussions during the year and an additional early season injury that, at minimum, resembled a head injury—Tagovailoa exhibited gross motor instability after a late hit but was cleared to play in the second half. The following week’s concussion was visually unnerving, as Tagovailoa’s fingers appeared contorted and stuck in front of his face after his head whipped back into the turf. His week-16 concussion prematurely ended his season. 

What is potentially most concerning is that all of his injuries occurred on nontraditional injury plays. According to NFL Football Operations, “roughing the passer” rules penalize defensive players that unnecessarily throw down or put their complete body weight on a passer at the end of a play. Neither of these tackling maneuvers occurred on Tagovailoa on any of the plays where his head injuries occurred—instead, the injuries largely occurred because he repeatedly did not cushion his falls with his hands, and thus his unbraced falls caused his head to whip back into the turf. This is not an indictment on Tua, but rather the coaches and training staff who could have better trained him for taking and reacting to such hits. 

While the safety of every NFL player is important, the modern professional quarterback is easily the most essential position in the context of an NFL team. His absence was a huge factor in many of the team’s losses this season, but for Tagovailoa, the combination of a lack of transparency and caution taken in both injury identification and injury prevention has likely shortened his career drastically while setting him up for a future where neurological impairment is much more likely to occur.

Looking more generally at the NFL quarterbacks, three out of the 12 NFL playoff teams this season fielded backup quarterbacks in the opening round, with two of those teams fielding a backup to their backup quarterback. Quarterbacks are the most protected player on the field through penalties like “roughing the passer.” If they are not protected, than no player is. 

While there are technological improvements like better helmet construction and, as the NFL website touts, Novel Mouthguard Sensors for concussion detection, the league continually ignores much simpler solutions to its injury crisis. More injuries occur because of longer seasons, shortened rest times and improper playing conditions. The NFL recently added a 17th game and likely will add an 18th game to the season in the near future in order to “grow the game,” per CBS Sports. If the NFL truly wanted to reduce injury, it could return to a 16-game season or, at minimum, shorten the four-game preseason, in which players often get injured before the season starts. Thursday Night Football scheduling, while increasing the number of days the NFL is on television,often creates a shortened week for NFL teams who played on Sunday earlier in the week, shortening recovery times and thus increasing the risk of injury. Finally, in terms of the playing conditions, cold-weather teams at multiple points in the season faced the Miami Dolphins at home in horrific conditions. The Minnesota Vikings played the Dolphins with the sideline reading 122 degrees, per SB nation. While Minnesota would ultimately win that game, the Buffalo Bills lost a game in Miami in which, at one point, four of their offensive starters were on the sideline because of heat illness, per Games in such brutal conditions should either be canceled, played in enclosed stadiums or at least played with proper shading on the away team’s sideline.  

The NFL, of course, is not the only organization that plays football. It is much harder to address the decentralized injury crisis in college football and highschool football. In 2021 alone, four highschool players died directly from traumatic football-related injuries, per TIME. At the minimum, action taken by the NFL, whether it comes in the form of scheduling, shortened seasons or improved playing conditions, can at least serve as new policies that lower leagues can look to in making their own player safety policy improvements.

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