On Monday night, football fans were stunned as they watched Damar Hamlin collapse on the field, halting the game. By Tuesday morning, we could watch curated clips of the injury with endless commentary. We could hear from doctors to learn about possible diagnosis and an explanation for what might have happened. We could listen to accounts from previous NFL players who have witnessed or suffered serious injury on the field. And whether we were watching the game or not, the impact of that single hit quickly resonated outside of the Bengals stadium, and into our collective mind-body awareness. On Thursday, Damar Hamlin woke up. His first communication with doctors was “Did we win?”. As we await further updates and ponder the future of the sport itself, we find some spontaneous common human ground in our emotions. Clearly, Damar didn’t get to feel the impact of his hit in the same way the rest of us did.
Football is often seen as the epitome of American masculinity. The game itself combines the strength, stamina and agility of our toughest athletes, but it's the sport’s well-marketed culture that really drives these powerful energies to new heights. The 32 teams of the NFL have brought in a combined revenue of around $18 billion dollars per year of late, and the many industries that get to capitalize on Football are really a blog unto themselves. There is serious MONEY in Football–and a lot of it. In America, our masculine energies have consistently valued money over physical safety, feelings/emotions, and some might argue, ethics in general. For the most part, we’ve all been essentially complicit in building this money-making machine on top of the broken bodies and head injuries that are always justified as “worth the risk because of the money they make”.
But are they? I don’t know which answer is ‘right’, because I honestly don’t have a studied opinion on the matter, and I know my thoughts are clouded by feelings. I am personally rooted to a specific football injury–a paralysis that occurred for the opposing team during one of my high school’s football games. That was more than 35 years ago and those emotions are still available if I wake them up by thinking about them. Monday night they appeared instantly as I, along with everyone else, wondered what had just happened to Damar Hamlin. My feelings in that moment reminded me how it felt to imagine that life changing instant so long ago. They didn’t inform my opinion, per se, but they ran my thoughts through a host of questions and considerations that are still rattling around in my body today.
The point that I’d like to focus on is our over-riding emotion, and I want to make it while the feelings still linger, even though I can feel them fading. Four days later, this story is not as pressing as it was: partly because he’s awakened, and partly because we naturally move forward with our habitually ingrained thought patterns. Damar Hamlin is showing signs of healthy brain function, which lets us all breathe a collective sigh of relief, easing the gravity of the situation. When I think of us all taking that breath together it warms my heart and lets me know that our universal connections as humans are still very strong, even in Football, where overwhelming emotion has no intrinsic value.
We will all be able to recall the heart-wrenching reactions as we watched the toughest of tough guys display their vulnerable hearts on the field, confused, worried, pensive, and palpably together. We could feel the emotions on the field bounce off of our own, as we took in various perspectives on the matter. We could feel the impact of the hit in our own bodies, because there was really nowhere else to take it. That relief wouldn’t come until we knew more about his condition, and for the moment, we weren’t sure when that might be.
We shared common feelings of worry and wonder as we all watched people react in real time, with raw, unchecked emotion. There was no hiding the powerful feelings that were surging through the most masculine sport in our country (arguably). The players' emotions were experienced in full view of the cameras, and the fans at home were touched from the bottom of their hearts in ways that don’t normally come from Football. For 24 hours, we were all a part of holding hopes of healing for a 24 year old man that we developed an immediate attachment to. Watching his friends, family and coaches describe the type of person Damar is helped bring it all home; and if you were interested in investing further into the man lying on a ventilator after a freak occurrence during a football game, all the networks were scrambling to share what they knew of his story.
Juxtapose that with what’s been happening on the house floor as our elected representatives can’t reach an agreement on leadership, and you will see that our lack of emotions play a much bigger part in how we navigate the world than we are generally willing to acknowledge. These are people who must keep to a political agenda as part of their jobs, so displaying how they really feel is not only viewed as weak, it’s not expected. Politics, like Football, generates its own fans and operates on many of the same principles, where only the strong survive, but that is where they deviate. Football is intended to be entertainment and politics are intended to support our government. It’s interesting how a terrible event can affect Football with deep humanity, but be unable to bridge the growing human divide on display in our political arenas.
Tragedy normally has a way of making us rediscover our own hearts and redirecting us toward the power that comes from being present with our ongoing emotions. We have been taught to avoid them, or at least express them in private where they won’t cause disruptions to plans and reputations. I hope we remember how good it feels to see someone physically powerful reveal how they feel, unabashed. You know that ‘winning moment’ in interviews? When we get someone to ‘break’ their stoicism and dip into their emotions, it rounds out the story like nothing else can! Yet we still try - with regularity - to limit our ability to be affected. When we value our capability to overcome our feelings and move past them, we miss out on their purpose–to simply move us from the places we become stuck. Our emotions are our first indicator that a change is in the air, and we can lean into them or hide from them.
This week, the football industry let their collective guard down and began to speak from broader perspectives. Even if nothing changes in the near future, everyone connected to football from players to fans has had the chance to feel something different from their daily status quo–and to feel it as a community. They have been open to discussions, even if they eventually retain their original opinions. Our politicians could benefit from a glance at their playbook as our political tragedies continue to derail our sense of community. Political ambition and agenda have risen above the integrity of its institutions, as winning appears to take priority at all costs. As I finish this blog, Damar Hamlin has just attended a heartfelt business meeting with his team on Facetime, and the Republicans are in the middle of their 13th vote, with a handful of holdouts intent on further division, and basking in the notoriety that comes with the attention it generates. If our politicians were chasing common ground instead of power, they might learn something from the collective emotions that vibrate through humanity every single day.