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Should Football Be Banned? Former NFL Player Donté Stallworth & Sports Reporter Bill Rhoden Weigh In

StoryJanuary 04, 2023
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Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on Monday during an NFL game. He remains in critical condition. After making a routine tackle against an opposing Cincinnati Bengals player, the 24-year-old safety collapsed on the field. Stunned players from both teams cried, prayed and hugged as Hamlin received CPR from medical personnel before being taken to the hospital. In recent years, the NFL has faced increased controversy over player safety, as more research links the full-contact sport with concussion-related traumatic brain injury and other negative health outcomes. Hamlin’s injury came just minutes after Bills defensive back Taron Johnson left the game with a head injury, and just days after Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered his third head injury of the season — following a concussion that left him hospitalized in September. “[Y]ou never know when your last day could be that you get to experience something like this. I’m cherishing it every moment that I can,” Hamlin said in an interview just weeks earlier. We speak to Donté Stallworth, a sports commentator and former NFL player who spent 10 years in the league, and William C. Rhoden, a longtime sports journalist and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete,” about Hamlin’s injury and the NFL’s response.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin remains in critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital two days after he suffered a cardiac arrest on the field Monday night during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The 24-year-old collapsed after making a tackle. Medical staff administered CPR, used a defibrillator to restore his pulse, before bringing an ambulance onto the field, the game indefinitely suspended as other players wept. Damar Hamlin was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he is now. According to his family, Hamlin is sedated on a ventilator after having been resuscitated twice on the field. A large vigil was held for him in Buffalo on Tuesday.

Damar Hamlin’s injury came just minutes after the Buffalo Bills defensive back Taron Johnson left the game with a head injury, and just days after Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered his third head injury of the season, following a concussion that left him hospitalized in week four.

We’re joined right now by two guests. William Rhoden, longtime sports journalist, author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, he was a columnist for The New York Times until 2016, now a columnist with ESPN’s Andscape. And Donté Stallworth is with us, sports commentator and former NFL player who spent 10 years in the league.

Donté, let’s begin with you. You were watching the game, this, to say the least, highly unusual moment, though one athlete after another so often must leave for injuries. To see this happen on the field, talk about your response to what took place on Monday night.

DONTÉ STALLWORTH: My initial response when this happened, I was horrified. I was watching it live from my couch. I had actually taken a nap prior to that, and I set my alarm to make sure that I was awake to watch this huge game, two of the best teams in the NFL about to play a very important game with huge magnitude of playoff implications.

When I saw this happen to Damar, I knew immediately that something was amiss. Something was different about this type of injury. We’ve seen players break bones, tear ligaments, get concussed, and those are all horrifying injuries, but it’s, unfortunately, a part of the brutal game that we play. When you saw Damar fall and you saw him collapse, after he had already gotten up, after what was a routine play in the NFL — wasn’t anything vicious or egregious or illegal about this play. It was a routine NFL play, a normal tackle. Both players got up. Damar collapsed back to the ground.

And I immediately looked to the reaction of the players. And as the minutes went by, you couldn’t see what was happening on the field with Damar, but you saw the players’ visceral reaction to what was happening in front of their faces. And that, to me, told the entire story. It told me that these players were witnessing something traumatic that they had never seen before. Out of all the injuries that you have in the NFL, out of all the egregious things that we’ve seen, the emotions on the players let me know that this was something traumatic that they were experiencing that was unprecedented.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Rhoden, I think the name, the title of your book is so telling, Forty Million Dollar Slaves. You actually were in Baltimore covering a man with another — a player with another injury. And how many people know that right before Damar collapsed, another Buffalo Bills player was taken off the field with a head injury, Taron Johnson? If you can put this all together for us, I mean, talking about a violent game?

WILLIAM RHODEN: Yeah. Well, hey, Amy. Hey, Donté. “Happy New Year,” quote-unquote.

You know, I’m still trying to put this together. I think everybody is still trying to process this. And frankly, Amy, you know, I’ve been doing a series of pieces on Lamar Jackson and his whole thing about betting on himself, and now he’s injured. And, you know, I’ve been spending the last 48 hours, frankly, doing a lot of soul searching, a really lot of soul searching, because one of the things I realized is that I’ve been covering this stuff for almost 40 years, and in the process of covering, you know, the NFL, knowing guys who played, that I realized, as a journalist, I’ve become a little desensitized to it. As Donté said, you know, you’re kind of used to, you know, almost every other play, guys going down. The players, you know, get around him, on one knee. Many times he’ll go off under his own power; sometimes he’ll be helped off, sometimes carted off. And, you know, the fans will applaud. And then you’re on to the next play.

And, you know, I was filing my story and watching this in a cafe, and then one commercial came by, and I was like, “OK, right.” Then two, then three, and I was like, “Oh man.” Because I always thought — I said, “What would ever happen if a player died on the field in a high-profile NFL game?” Because all of a sudden — you know, we talk about the violence of the game and all that, but I think for a lot of people the kind of violence is kind of cartoon — they’re cartoon characters, you know, that it’s not really real. I think fantasy football helps with that, the whole betting. And, you know — and right now I think the problem is we don’t really know.

So, I’m really focused on, A, I hope — man, I hope that this young man is OK. But, moving forward, and maybe Donté could speak to this, you know, how do you even begin to play again? Remember, I don’t know if you noticed it, but shortly thereafter, the whole Buffalo defensive unit was getting ready to head back on the field. Somebody had said, kind of, “Well, let’s give them some warm-up time.” And then, I think, at some point — it may have been Troy Vincent — somebody said, “You cannot continue playing this game. You know, you cannot continue playing this game.”

So, now, I think, moving forward, how does the NFL, which is this huge — the NFL prints money. They print money. You know, you’ve got TV contracts. As Donté said, you’ve got all these things that hinge on outcomes and seedings and standings. You’ve got the Super Bowl coming up, with playoffs. Now, how does the NFL begin to balance continuing to play the games? And how do players process this? If the Buffalo and Cincinnati players said, you know, “We can’t play another game”? You know, so, my immediate concern and prayer is that this young man pulls out of this and that there is some type of good news. But then, moving forward, what are the conversations we’re having in the breach, in the silence? What kind of conversations are we having about this game? You know, and it’s clearly —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we talk about that, Bill? I mean, you have sort of not exactly joked, but said, “What? Are we going to call for the banning of the game?”

WILLIAM RHODEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why not?

WILLIAM RHODEN: Well — yeah, go ahead, Donté.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, Donté.

DONTÉ STALLWORTH: Well, I think that when you look at just the importance of the health of Damar Hamlin, I also want to reiterate, too, that we’re obviously pushing for the best-case scenario, which is that he can resume a normal and healthy life, forget the NFL, forget playing again. If he’s able, somehow able to do that, that’s obviously great, and that’s his decision, if he wants to do that, if he’s able to. But the most important thing is that he’s able to resume a normal and healthy life again. That is the best possible outcome here.

And these injuries that we’ve seen players take in, you know, over the past few decades, especially with all that we’ve learned in 2012 and so on with more of the research that we’ve kind of learned about through concussions, through brain injuries, these are tough injuries, but these are injuries that happen in front of our eyes, but then, you know, these players are carted off, and the game resumes.

I do want to tip my hat to the NFL, in general, and, I would say, more specifically, the head coaches of Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, and subsequently the players. They weren’t going back out there, regardless of whatever the NFL was going to say or not going to say about the game resuming, about the game being resumed in the next 24 hours or in the next 36, 48 hours. The players were traumatized, and their coaches saw this, and they both got together and said, “Hey, we’re going to go to the locker room and speak to the officials, speak to the head umpire and speak to officials in the NFL, and basically reiterate to them that they’re not able to mentally go back out.”

So, to answer your other question, not really sure how the players from especially the Buffalo Bills, but also the Cincinnati Bengals, as well — I don’t know how they go out and play a game this weekend. I really don’t. I know that, you know, we have this mentality in the NFL, and it’s pretty accustomed to being an NFL player where you have this mentality that “next guy up.” You know, a guy gets hurt, regardless of what that injury is, you know, there’s got to be a next man up that’s got to fill his role and be that piece in the puzzle to help the team win a game. And that’s something that we’ve compartmentalized mental issues, mental health issues, we’ve compartmentalized physical pain, to be able to go out and fulfill that “next man up” problem that we have in the NFL. So, it’s really difficult to tell how a player can go out and play that witnessed this firsthand, that was on the field watching the medical professionals and the medical staff administer CPR for several minutes to Damar Hamlin. These guys are going to be changed forever. And it’s really going to be interesting to see how the NFL proceeds, moving forward.

AMY GOODMAN: And how the NFL deals with issues like, for example, what’s happening with Tua, just a few days before, a Miami Dolphin, the whole issue of the concussion protocol and how it’s been enforced, I mean, that a game even needs this. I mean, it’s a collision sport. You have soccer, the beautiful game. You have football, the violent game. Bill Rhoden, if you could talk about this, how players are diagnosed — I mean, how many people know — I’m repeating myself, but that Taron Johnson was taken off just a few minutes before Damar went down?

WILLIAM RHODEN: Yeah, and that gets to the larger point. You know, it almost becomes like — I keep mentioning this word “desensitized,” you know, that, yeah, you had one or two injuries. And it’s, OK, you know, they’re taken off. OK. As Donté said, next man up. You know, the young man who was hurt was next man up.

AMY GOODMAN: Damar.

WILLIAM RHODEN: Yeah, Damar was next man up. Remember, that’s why he was in the lineup. He was the next man up, because he was taking the place of Fitzpatrick I believe, right? And he was the next man up. And I think that whether it’s in football or all of us, I mean, that’s why it was a metaphor. You know, everybody is kind of a replaceable part.

But to your — the larger point is: Where does the NFL go? You’r not going to change the nature of the game. You’re really not going to change the nature of the game. If there are games this weekend, there are going to be guys who are not getting up. There are going to be guys who are getting carted off. There are going to be serious injuries. And the larger question is: What do you do? You know, we’re not banning the game anytime soon, you know.

So, like I said, I’m in the middle of this soul searching. I remember I was at the Kentucky Derby when Eight Belles died at the Kentucky Derby. And I had been very critical of the horse-racing industry. And after that happened, I said, “You know, I’m done with this. I’m done with this, the way they shoot up horses, they treat them.” And near the end of — I was at The New York Times for 34 years. And near the end of 2016, with the concussions and what we were beginning to find out about what the owners knew about concussions, and how they were hiding it, you know, I was almost at the point then. I said, “You know what? I’m done with this, man.” You know, this is just — you know, I appreciate the fact that a lot of people are, you know, leasing their bodies, and they’re getting generational wealth. You know, there’s an exchange: I lease the team my body, I get paid, and keep my fingers crossed that I could have a 10-year career and kind of get out of it unscathed.

But, you know, the larger question now, while we’re waiting to hear what happens, you know: Where does the league go from here? And I guarantee you — I would love to hear those conversations between the TV execs, the NFL people, about how do we play these games, how do we keep ourselves on schedule. And I think Donté mentioned it.

I think this is another conversation for another show, but, to me, this is kind of also about guaranteed contracts. The NFL is the only major league whose players do not have guaranteed contracts. And NFL players, more than any other team sport, deserve guaranteed contracts. You know, if you play this game, you should be taken care of. You should be — your contract should be guaranteed. And again, this really isn’t the time to talk about that, but I do think that this is something really worth fighting for. The owners are saying that this is the hill they’re going to die on. They’re not going to do what the NBA does. They’re not going to do what Major League Baseball does. But these players, if you look at what happens every single game, every single week, you know, these players need to be protected. And they need to be protected for the rest of their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting — Bill, interesting, the term you use, “This is the hill they’re going to die on.” Well, athletes are dying. And I was wondering if Donté could respond to that? Also, looking at a piece in the Times from last year: “With the addition of a 17th regular season game on top of the two extra playoff games the league added last season, the N.F.L. negotiated substantially higher rates for its media rights. The new deals, which total more than $100 billion, nearly double the amount of the expiring contracts.” What’s at stake here?

DONTÉ STALLWORTH: Yeah, there is a lot at stake, obviously. You know, the NFL being a multibillion-dollar corporation, lots of money is at stake. But I do think that in this moment, with this incident being so unprecedented, I’m as skeptical as they come when it comes to multibillion-dollar corporations, no matter who they are, no matter that I’m a former player myself and still enjoy watching the game and still involved in the game by speaking with teams and things of that nature. But, you know, I do want to first, like, give the NFL some kudos. You know, they haven’t — they’ve kind of earned the natural skepticism when anything like this, of this nature, happens. They’ve earned that over the years. But, you know, the fact that they canceled the game, or they postponed the game and then said that the game wouldn’t be played within the week, they’re taking the steps, I think, to pretty much show that this is an unprecedented situation. And I think everything right now is fluid.

But I do want to say, too, to mention, kind of piggybacking, you know, about players and players’ health, Damar Hamlin was only in his second year. He is not a vested player. To be vested, you have to play — I believe it’s three years plus three games. So, essentially, you have to be in your fourth year and play three games to become vested. You have to play three games and three years to receive a pension. You also have to play three years and three games to receive the five years of healthcare that the NFL gives to players after they’ve retired. So, he has not been a vested player, so there’s a lot of things that are at play here. Unfortunately for the NFL — for the NFL players, that is something that can’t be changed, I guess, until the new collective bargaining agreement, which they just had one last year or the year before. But —

AMY GOODMAN: We have —

DONTÉ STALLWORTH: — those are things that I’m concerned about right now.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you, Donté Stallworth, as well as William Rhoden, author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, for joining us. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman.

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