Last Monday night, Damar Hamlin, a 25-year-old National Football League safety, laced up his cleats with the words 3 IS BACK printed in red and black and took his seat on the sidelines for the Buffalo Bills’ game against the New York Jets. The appearance marked Hamlin’s return to the field after nearly dying mid-game in January following a blunt-force injury with a wide receiver.

Hamlin was on the field to be talked about, not participate. Before kickoff, his wide and guileless grin—seen so often over the past six months, everywhere from SportsCenter to Good Morning America, to “get well” clips from the president—was put on MetLife Stadium’s massive screens. N.F.L. commissioner Roger Goodell, who had presided over the aftermath of Hamlin’s health issues, watched from the stands.

Six days after Hamlin’s injury, N.F.L. commissioner Roger Goodell wore a hat with the player’s jersey number to a Bills game.

A serious injury happened within 90 seconds. In Aaron Rodgers’s first game with the New York Jets, the four-time M.V.P. quarterback tore his Achilles tendon. As reporter Adam Schefter explained, it’s “the most devastating injury to a team and fan base in N.F.L. history.” Rodgers left with his season ruined and, possibly, his career over. As with the game in January, the dangers of football became the main narrative.

Hamlin’s injury happened as debates over concussion-related injuries in the N.F.L. were intensifying. The commissioner’s focus on the uplifting aspects of the story, and his unwillingness to acknowledge the inherent dangers of the sport that caused Hamlin’s injury, have drawn well-deserved criticism. But for the commissioner, nothing is above the game.

Blowing the Whistle

Last winter, Hamlin’s comeback would’ve struck the casual observer as miraculous. On January 2, with six minutes of the first quarter remaining in a Week 17 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, Hamlin collided with Tee Higgins, a Bengals wide receiver. Higgins had caught a 10-yard pass, then lowered his right shoulder into Hamlin, who fell to the ground, got up, and then collapsed again.

The collision that put Hamlin into cardiac arrest.

Hamlin had suffered an episode of commotio cordis, which happens when considerable blunt force strikes the heart at a precise moment in the cardiac cycle, inducing a deadly arrhythmic heartbeat and causing cardiac arrest. Ninety-seven percent of victims die if not treated within minutes. Even with prompt treatment, the survival rate is just 59 percent.

Medical professionals rushed onto the field to administer C.P.R., apply an automated external defibrillator, and attach I.V.’s before carrying Hamlin out on a stretcher, loading him into an ambulance, and delivering him to a nearby hospital. News of his survival didn’t come until the following morning.

The first sign of how the N.F.L. would handle Hamlin’s injury appeared just following his evacuation. Despite the severity of the situation, it took almost an hour for the game to be called off. The time between Hamlin’s injury and Monday Night Football’s postponement presented viewers with an unnerving fact: though Hamlin’s life hung in the balance, so too did the continuation of the Bengals versus the Bills.

Since then, Goodell has tried to turn Hamlin’s injury into a positive story about the N.F.L. In a press conference only days after Hamlin’s hospitalization, an attending surgeon cited a “substantial improvement in his condition.” On Wednesday, January 11—only nine days after the injury—Hamlin was discharged from the hospital and directed to convalesce at home. In a public statement, Goodell said that “seeing … teams, players, coaches, and fans like you band together was yet another reminder that football is family: human, loving, and resilient.”

Goodell no doubt felt reassured a week later, upon learning that the incident had been a “freak accident,” according to N.F.L. doctors, who said that his injury was rare. You could practically hear the N.F.L. breathing a sigh of relief: football had not nearly taken his life; misfortune had.

Though Damar Hamlin’s life hung in the balance, so too did the continuation of the Bengals versus the Bills.

In the past two decades, concerns surrounding the prevalence of cardiac issues and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a neurodegenerative disease that often results in dementia, as well as other concussion-related injuries, in the N.F.L. have dramatically increased. In February, an N.F.L. report revealed that concussions increased by 18 percent between the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Last year, in 271 games, 149 concussions were recorded.

Hamlin recovers in the hospital after the episode of commotio cordis.

The official N.F.L.-led celebration of Hamlin’s recovery began on January 22 as he waved to fans from a club suite at the Bills’ divisional playoff game, a rematch against the Bengals. It continued with another grand entrance at February’s Super Bowl LVII, in Phoenix, just days after Hamlin received the N.F.L. Players Association Alan Page Community Award.

On February 9, surrounded by the medical staff that had saved his life, Hamlin delivered a heartfelt speech at the N.F.L. Honors award show. “My entire life, I felt like God was using me to give others hope, and now, with a new set of circumstances, I can say that he’s doing what he’s always done,” he said.

In July, Hamlin presented the Pat Tillman Award to the Buffalo Bills training staff, all of whom gathered in a huddle onstage before a teary-eyed crowd. Over the course of these commemorations, he gave multiple television interviews and occupied a near-permanent space on sports-related social-media accounts.

There’s a noticeable unease beneath this continual promotion. It has nothing to do with Hamlin, who is, by all accounts, an exceptionally brave and accomplished athlete and human. As Josh Allen, the Bills’ quarterback, said in a press conference three days after the incident, Hamlin “is never in a bad mood, he’s always upbeat. He just wants to go out there and play football.” Rather, there’s suspicion about the N.F.L. and Goodell, who would have faced extreme backlash if Hamlin had died.

In February, at Super Bowl LVII, Hamlin hugged the medical personnel that saved his life a month earlier.

Beginning in 2011, more than 4,500 athletes approached the N.F.L., many of them experiencing a variety of brain-related health issues, in hopes of enhancing safety precautions. In 2013, Goodell agreed to a $765 million settlement for former N.F.L. players who’d suffered concussion-related brain injuries, saying that the deal was the “best” outcome for both parties. That disregards the actual best outcome: more effective safety measures.

Some players, such as former N.F.L. Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, have found themselves forced into an early retirement due to the threat of long-term physical damage. The then 28-year-old left the game in 2020 after suffering three concussions in three seasons. Although he “still [wanted] to play,” he didn’t “think it [was] the right decision.”

Last year, in 271 games, 149 concussions were recorded.

In recent years, the league has been forced to adopt injury-prevention technology developed from outside sources, in hopes of minimizing injuries without changing the game. These include Guardian Caps, a type of padded helmet proven to better protect the head. The helmets are worn in practice but never in games because league executives have taken issue with the way they fit.

And yet, precautionary measures can only do so much. In 2015, physician and neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, the first doctor to produce definitive research related to the prevalence of C.T.E.’s in the N.F.L., told The Guardian that “no equipment can prevent” concussions in football. “Any activity which results in repeated blows to the head” carries “the risk of causing brain damage,” he explained.

According to him, the question to ask about making football safer is “Can you take the head out of a high-impact contact sport?” His original findings, published in 2005, received significant pushback from the N.F.L.; a 2009 GQ investigation found that three scientists, all on the N.F.L.’s payroll, had demanded Omalu’s article be retracted.

In 2015, the N.F.L.’s attempts to suppress Omalu’s study were turned into a film titled Concussion, starring Will Smith. After its release, The New York Times reported that the N.F.L. had cut a deal with Sony, the company that produced the film, to “delete or change” certain “unflattering moments for the N.F.L.” In response, Goodell, who became the N.F.L.’s commissioner in 2006, said, “We’re not focused on a movie.”

“Can you take the head out of a high-impact contact sport?”

Last season, the N.F.L. dealt with Miami Dolphins superstar quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s two confirmed concussions and a third injury that, if not a concussion, must have been close. The 25-year-old Miami Dolphins superstar’s first brain injury, early on in the 2022 season, left him visibly spasming on the field. He returned to play later in the game after being cleared by the Dolphins’ medical staff—to the surprise, dismay, and disgust of many fans in the stands.

The long-term damage of concussions increases with repeated impact and is typically charted over the course of a lifetime, not a season. “It’s probably time to maybe consider shutting it down,” said Aaron Rodgers of Tagovailoa’s repeated injuries. “At some point, you do have to start thinking about your cognitive function later in life.”

The N.F.L. has a history of riding “good publicity” over the bumpy terrain of critique. Another poignant example is Alex Smith, a quarterback who, in a 2018 game with the Washington Redskins (now the Commanders), sustained a spiral and compound fracture in his leg. After his initial surgery, Smith suffered a life-threatening case of septicemia (blood poisoning). Two years and almost 20 surgeries later, Smith returned to the field with the Redskins. He won five of the six games he played, throwing for just under 1,600 yards. He was named Comeback Player of the Year that season. In the 2021 offseason that followed, he retired.

Hamlin, meanwhile, played a few downs in the pre-season this year, even assisting on multiple tackles. Three separate specialists had reportedly cleared him to play, as other doctors had done with Tagovailoa. Many wonder about Hamlin’s decision to return to play after suffering cardiac arrest.

From the sidelines, Hamlin watches the Buffalo Bills play the New York Jets.

Though an episode of commotio cordis does not necessarily lead to a permanently weakened heart, many athletes, such as former National Hockey League player Jay Bouwmeester, who collapsed during a game after a cardiac episode in 2020, choose to immediately retire.

Hamlin was re-signed to the Bills on August 29, the last day teams could sign players. In his pre-season plays, Hamlin looked outwardly fit for the field. Before Monday’s game, he was listed as a “healthy inactive scratch,” meaning he would not play in the game but, instead, would warm up with his team, then remain on the sidelines after kickoff.

To see Hamlin play professional football safely would elicit universal joy from N.F.L. fans. And yet, if Hamlin rides grinning into the sunset, as we all hope he will, one cannot help but think that Goodell and the N.F.L. will have gotten away with another close call.

Jack Sullivan is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL