Damar Hamlin And The Humanity Of Football


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There's something uniquely chilling about tough guys in tears.

It's not that crying is a sign of weakness -- it's often the opposite -- but that professional football players who present as modern day gladiators, free from the pitfalls of empathy and compassion in their never-ending pursuit of glory, aren't supposed to cry. Big boys don't cry. And yet on Monday night in Cincinnati, where Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during a cardiac event that landed him in critical condition in a nearby hospital, they cried. Some wailed. Tear-drenched faces were everywhere.

Football players openly weeping, holding each other, begging the Almighty to intervene and to do so quickly: It tugs at your humanity in a way other spectacles cannot. It's so regrettably easy to forget these gladiators are indeed human, in many ways as frail and vulnerable as you and me. They bleed and cry and feel and hurt. To watch them express their humanity in such a raw manner would make anyone well up with emotion.

What Bills and Bengals players saw on the field Monday night broke the gladiator's spell. It's a spell cast not by only the players and coaches and the league, but by us, the fans, the fantasy players who want to believe these mortals are superhuman -- a toxic perspective that ironically leads to the dehumanization of these supermen, for supermen can feel no pain, and therefore deserve no empathy. All at once, in a silent stadium on Monday night, the spell was broken, the veil torn away, the players-turned-people revealed.

At midfield, with paramedics working frantically to revive the 24-year-old Hamlin, the spectacle that is the NFL came to a halt. The movie reel stopped, the lights came up, and we squinted, faced with real life in all its pain and anxiety and anguish. The show had been revealed.

Fantasy football is inherently dehumanizing; it's something with which I've struggled during my dozen years in the fantasy industry. We forget -- or choose never to acknowledge -- that these NFL players are people. Our collective obsession with players' on-field production turns them into living, breathing statistics to be acquired and dispatched with the cold calculation of a computer programmed to maximize points. Watch the way fantasy gamers berate players on Twitter after a rough Sunday afternoon and see a population of rabid fans who have not even considered acknowledging a player's humanity. Track these terrible little online messages to players and see interactions drained of anything resembling decency.

We would do well to occasionally remind ourselves that fantasy football is a nerdy game within a game. And I don't use "nerd" as pejorative. Nerds are good, nerds are interesting and passionate. They're not afraid to care about something beyond themselves. But sometimes nerds' passion can mutate into something sinister and unfeeling. Interest hardens into obsession and our humanity drains from us, sometimes slowly and steadily, sometimes all at once.

As the late, great Chris Wesseling of Rotoworld and NFL Network told me in a 2012 interview, “There should be just a bit of shame involved [in fantasy football]. That gets left behind as the popularity rages out of control. Let's face it, there's not much separating fantasy football from Dungeons and Dragons. You're living out a fantasy through the actions of someone else. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled at such behavior. Nobody cares about your fantasy team except you.”

NFL players do not exist for our entertainment. They sacrifice everything -- including, sometimes, brain function -- for the game they love, but they don't do it for us. They are well-compensated professionals with lives off the gridiron, outside the gladiator's arena. They play for their teammates, for their families, for themselves, and they exist outside the spectacle.

Monday night was a horrible and necessary reminder that, like you, they feel, and like you, they cry. Like you, they're people.