The potential for explosive, cathartic moments is what leads us to play many sports and to watch them, and it seems that with a number of them — Ping-Pong and curling perhaps being exceptions — the possibility of serious injury, death even, is ever-present, as we saw recently on national television.
The N.F.L. and the coaches were right, of course, to end that Bengals-Bills game when Damar Hamlin, the Bills’ safety, collapsed following what was said to have been “a not unusually violent” collision in tackling a receiver and was brought back to life thanks to immediate medical attention. But while everyone, of course, hopes that the young football player makes a full recovery (as this is written his condition is improving), Americans will keep playing and watching football, boxing, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, and ice hockey, sports in which there have been severe injuries and deaths — reportedly almost 2,000 in boxing’s case since 1890 — over the years.
We’ve long known that football can damage the brain, either in the short or long term, yet I doubt this knowledge has diminished pro football’s audience. We, the viewers, have been guilty bystanders for a while now, as was made abundantly clear on the night of Jan. 2.
That Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was probably caused by a blow to the chest that triggered a severe arrhythmia has generated comparisons to similar blows sustained by lacrosse goalies, some of whom have died as a result. (I played that position with relish in my college freshman year, giving no thought whatsoever to any possible adverse consequences.)
The N.F.L. should obviously take every step to diminish the chances of on-field catastrophes — and to avert the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in its players’ brains, but I doubt that people in this country, as participants or as viewers, are going to embrace golf, tennis, swimming, and figure skating exclusively.
As spectator sports, baseball and basketball seem to offer a mean of sorts inasmuch as they are less risky to play yet offer plenty of explosive, cathartic moments. But violence, or the potential for it that goes hand in hand with just about all contact sports continues, I think, to hold us in its grip.