Damar Hamlin’s Collapse and the Future of Football: A Q&A with Bruce Svare

A red football helmet sits on a grassy field.
Photo by Melissa McGovern / Unsplash.com

By Erin Frick 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 12, 2023) — Football is a beloved national pastime. Yet its inherent violence and risk for severe injury frequently bring into question whether the National Football League is doing enough to regulate the game and protect players. The recent in-game collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin brings new momentum to this conversation.

It is thought that Hamlin’s collapse might have been caused by commotio cordis — when the heart stops due to a sudden blow to the chest at a specific point in the heart’s rhythm cycle. Although the condition is rare in football, it poses a particular concern for young athletes who, according to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), are at higher risk of experiencing commotio cordis because their chest walls are less developed than adults’. The AMSSM reports that the average victim of commotio cordis is 14 years old.

University at Albany’s Bruce Svare, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience, is an expert in sport psychology and the relationship between sport and society. We caught up with Svare to gain insight into the potential implications of Hamlin’s injury on the sport, whether the incident might incite changes to policies around player protection and how this event might influence perceptions of the sport among youth athletes and their caregivers.

Can you point to another time when an athlete's injury brought together fans of a sport to a degree similar to Hamlin's? How might this shift public perception of the sport?

Hamlin’s collapse was witnessed live by millions of viewers and immediately brought together football fans across the country in various shows of support that grew in the days following the incident. I can't think of a time when there has been such a universal outpouring of support and concern for any athlete in any sport.

The impact of this serious injury to Damar Hamlin will certainly have implications for years to come; however, it will not fundamentally alter the insatiable addiction that the American public has for football as our number one entertainment option.

The game makes billions of dollars for the NFL and many fans consume it with little concern for the health of the players. Fans have a tendency to view professional football as entertainment and clearly the American public loves it. Professional players go into the sport with their eyes wide open. They make substantial sums of money knowing that they could be injured and lose their profession in a second. It is a risk they are willing to take because of their love for the game and the high levels of compensation they receive.

We will see what happens down the road. I think it will be business as usual very quickly as fans are much more concerned with their teams winning rather than the injuries their players might incur.

Is this incident likely to spur new actions on the part of the NFL to better protect players?

The NFL, with its vast resources, must do a better job of designing equipment for maximum safety of players and these equipment changes must filter down to all levels of the sport. Has the NFL done a good job with preventing injury to date? Rule changes during games and practice changes have helped and the NFL should be complimented on this.

High-profile player injuries have played a role in these conversations. One example is the case of Pittsburgh Steeler player Mike Webster, whose brain autopsy in 2002 was a pivotal point in the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) story and shed light on the risks of severe brain injury due to repeated concussions incurred playing football. Importantly, the Damar Hamlin injury, as difficult as it was for players and fans to experience, is rare and is not the major football injury that is driving changes in the sport. It is clearly concussions, brain injury and CTE that tops the list. 

The question remains as to whether or not the NFL should be doing more with equipment changes and rule and practice changes. The continued high level of injuries in football, especially concussions, suggests that much more needs to be done. We should constantly remind ourselves that football is not just a contact sport, but rather a collision sport, played by athletes who are getting bigger, stronger and faster all the time. As a result, the element of high injury risk will probably always exist for a sport such as football that is so inherently dangerous.

Since young people are more vulnerable to the cardiac condition Hamlin is thought to have suffered, do you think attitudes will change about whether children should play the sport?

Let’s be clear, the Hamlin incident is still being studied and we still don’t know if there were any predisposing factors that might have contributed to it. However, I expect that this rare incident, combined with the CTE information that has been accumulating since 2002, will cause some parents to make different decisions about allowing their kids to play football. It is safe to assume that it will hasten the movement away from tackle football at early ages (prior to high school) and encourage the formation of non-contact flag football.

This trend is already occurring in many communities and will probably accelerate. From my perspective, this is a good thing. Notably, the NFL has gotten behind this movement by devoting significant resources to the development of youth flag football throughout the country.

As we learn more about the risks of playing football, will this awareness affect the future of the sport?

Professional, college and high school football is part of our cultural DNA but there are danger signs concerning the sport’s long-term viability as it becomes more dangerous, more expensive and less attractive to a younger population of players and their parents.

Beyond player health and safety, the expense of playing tackle football and the associated risks are playing out in other ways, too. For example, school districts are finding that liability insurers are turning to à la carte methods of determining insurance premiums for sports, with football escalating at the fastest rate. There will come a time when fielding high school football programs will no longer be financially feasible for many schools.

 College football continues to be popular, but only for the power five conferences where enthusiastic fan bases, commercial endorsements and TV contracts can underwrite the sport. Smaller colleges and universities in lesser conferences with fewer resources will have difficult decisions to make on whether they can continue to justify supporting a sport that is both costly and so laden with injury risks. These are difficult decisions in higher education; cost-benefit analysts will play a decisive role in determining the outcome.