The Football Paradox

The Buffalo Bills gather after Damar Hamlin’s heart attack.

In some ways, football is American culture writ large. It’s violent and angry yet celebratory at the same time. It combines beauty and brute force. Those juxtapositions were obvious yesterday in both the college and professional game. It was The Good, The Bad and The Ugly all over again. Cue theme song:

The underdog Tulane Green Wave staged a spectacular comeback against USC in the Cotton Bowl. They trailed 45-30 with 5 minutes to go and pulled out a victory. That was The Good. Dr. A and I both have graduate degrees from Tulane, but my line has always been that I believe in the losing tradition of Tulane football. I’ll take academics over athletics every day.

The Bad and The Ugly collided in Cincinnati during an NFL game between the Bengals and Buffalo Bills.

The Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin is in a critical condition in hospital after he had a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field last night, with NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals suspended after the incident.


Hamlin was administered CPR and was surrounded by teammates, some of them in tears, after he was hurt while tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins.


Higgins led with his right shoulder, which hit Hamlin in the chest. Hamlin then wrapped his arms around Higgins’s shoulders and helmet to drag him down. Hamlin got to his feet, appeared to adjust his face mask with his right hand, and then fell backward about three seconds later and lay motionless.

There was a miniscule amount of good that came out of this horrible event: players on both teams refused to resume play and the game was postponed. NFL management tried to take credit, but it was down to the players and their union.

People tend to think of pro football players as gladiators who risk their bodies for our entertainment. Instead, they’re human beings who play a violent sport to make a living. Pro sports has long been an avenue of social mobility for players who grew up poor.

I have profoundly mixed feelings about watching sports on teevee. When I lived with my parents, sports were what my father and I had in common, so we watched and attended games together. Dad was essentially a jock: he was puzzled and vexed by having a budding liberal intellectual as a child.

Over the years, my sports consumption has lessened. As money became the prime topic in professional sports, I began to lose interest. Football was never my favorite, so it was the first to go: I stopped watching any games except for my own teams, the LSU Tigers and the New Orleans. Then there was one after the pandemic: the Saints. Supporting the Saints is act of civic patriotism and I love my city even in all its TFC-ness. TFC = This Fucking City.

During the lockdown with its truncated and downright messy seasons, I reconsidered how much time I spent consuming sports on teevee. Who cares who wins the World Series after a 60 game regular season? Besides, every baseball story is about money, money, money. I’ve never been interested in OPM: other people’s money. The acronyms are really flying today.

Back to football. To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign mantra: It’s the injuries, stupid.

I have a hard time watching healthy young men carried off the field unconscious or in agonizing pain. A football game without injuries is a rare thing indeed. They’re rarely as bad as Damar Hamlin’s heart attack but they happen like clockwork every game.

I realize that the players know that injuries are a part of the game, but in my experience young men rarely think in the long term. We’ve learned a lot about CTE in pro football. The players who last the longest have the worst effects such as hall of famers Mike Webster, Bob Lilly, and Ken Stabler.

CTE is not the only health issue faced by retired players. Center Jim Otto was the anchor of the Oakland Raiders team I rooted for as a young man. He could barely walk after his playing days ended.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to stop following football if they enjoy it. But I’ve found it harder and harder to do so in recent years. LSU has a big-time athletic program but a crumbling main library. I keep hoping the football team will want to have a library of which they can be proud. It’s a forlorn hope, alas.

Back to Damar Hamlin. It was horrifying to see a 24-year-old professional athlete collapse on the field. I wish him nothing but the best. His playing career may be over, but I won’t be surprised if he wants to play again. It’s up to him.

Football is loaded with paradoxes: violence vs. grace; muscle vs. finesse; complexity vs, brute force.

The oddest paradox of all is that the fans are mostly people who have never played or coached but think they could do it better than those who actually do it. In college football, most fans didn’t attend the school they root for. So it goes.

The word fan is rooted in fanatic. In the early days of major league baseball, fans were called cranks. It still works: I’ve gone from a crank to just cranky, after all.

Get well soon, Damar.

The last word is rooted in the blues: