Sports are fun until…

Football is a sport. And sports are fun.

Sure, there are times when that fun becomes bittersweet. Like when your favorite team misses a potentially game-winning field goal attempt. Or the other team scores an unlikely touchdown at the end of the game. But it doesn’t diminish the joys of participating in a big game.

Sports are fun. Until they aren’t. 

Last night, I was looking forward to a really big game between my Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills. Both teams have put together fantastic seasons. Both teams feature brilliant young quarterbacks and talented rosters. Both teams have clinched playoff berths and are battling for high seeds and home field advantages in the post-season. More than 65,000 fans were packed into Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium on the banks of the Ohio River. 

Early in the first quarter, the hometown Bengals had a 7-3 lead and the ball. The stadium was rocking. Until it wasn’t.

Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old safety for the Bills, tackled a Bengals receiver. As tackles go, it didn’t appear unusually violent in the inherently violent sport of football. Hamlin got up, stood for a couple of seconds adjusting his helmet. And then collapsed.

As the medical team rushed to Hamlin’s side, an eerie hush fell over the stadium. That hush became more pronounced when paramedics began frantically administering CPR on the young player. As he was given oxygen, placed in an ambulance and rushed to a nearby trauma center, the full impact of the event hit the crowd and sucked all the air out of the stadium.

 Large men broke down in tears. Competitors hugged and prayed together. The fans were too shocked to leave their seats. Sometime later, the game was suspended and word was received that Hamlin was in critical condition – his heart had stopped prior to being administered CPR.

Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Suzy Kolber, Scott Van Pelt and the various members of the ESPN broadcast team who are paid handsomely for their abilities to describe events simply had no words to describe the situation. Try as they might, these professional communicators struggled to communicate, to make sense for the viewers about what was happening in the stadium on the banks of the Ohio River. It was uncharted territory.

I grew up a little over 10 miles from the Ohio River – a bit less as the crow flies. I’ve taken boat rides on the Ohio and enjoyed numerous events on both sides of the river. Last night this concept of uncharted territory struck me. Robert de LaSalle was one of the first Europeans to traverse the Ohio River some 450 years ago. He was surely experiencing the fear of venturing into uncharted waters. Just as the broadcasters and fans were experiencing a fear most had never known. 

To their credit, most of those involved in this tragedy handled it as well as could be expected. Sure, a few of the players kept warming up and exhorting their teammates to refocus. That’s what elite competitors do. But soon everyone realized this was no ordinary event. And not long after, the NFL did the only thing it could do. Postpone the game.

Sports are fun. Until they aren’t.