Why I'm Not Going To Let My Black Son Play Football

Damar Hamlin's recovery is a miracle, but it highlights the painful reality that American football — the NFL in particular — has always been careless with Black bodies.
David Madison via Getty Images

It’s nothing short of a miracle that Damar Hamlin is alive, alert, and on his way home. The 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety collapsed last Monday during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals after a routine tackle due to what appeared to be cardiac arrest. On the field, he received CPR as millions of worried fans looked on.

While it’s still unclear what caused Hamlin’s heart to stop that evening, the severity and frequency of injuries in the sport and the NFL’s unwillingness to protect their players further affirms my feelings about keeping my son as far away from football as possible. Though he is still a baby, I already spend time thinking about which schools my son will attend, which hobbies he’ll choose, and how he’ll navigate this world as a Black man. My no-football rule will probably upset some of my uncles and cousins who believe adrenaline and aggression are “what makes a man.” But to keep it short and sweet, to hell with patriarchy, racism and the NFL.

Ultimately, it was NFL execs’ reported failure to make an immediate decision to cancel the game as athletic trainers, medics and other officials on the ground scrambled to save Hamlin’s life that cemented my disdain for the game. In a league where 70% of athletes are Black like Hamlin, decisions like this one clearly prioritize money and fandom over Black lives.

Hamlin’s injury quickly reignited conversations around the lack of equity in an industry where team owners and decision-makers are overwhelmingly wealthy and white. The net worth of many NFL team owners, who sometimes also benefit from generational wealth, is upward of one billion dollars.

A player wears a shirt in support of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during pre-game warm ups for the game between the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 8, 2023, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.
A player wears a shirt in support of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during pre-game warm ups for the game between the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 8, 2023, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In comparison, players make an average salary of around two million dollars and often come from much humbler circumstances. And while two million sounds like a lot, please consider the physical abuse their bodies endure during their careers. It all takes a toll. A study from 2015 showed that “retired football players end up bankrupt within 12 years of stepping off the field for the last time,” according to NBC Sports.

Hamlin’s base salary for this year is reportedly around $800,000, and in his contract, there is a “standard split” that pays him half his salary if he spends the entire season on what the NFL calls injured reserve. While the NFL has recently said that they will pay Hamlin’s entire salary for this year, this general stipulation is wild considering how common severe injuries are in football and how lackluster disability compensation is.

Also, there’s seemingly very little being done to prevent serious injuries from happening in the first place. Football players “double their risk of developing the worst cases of C.T.E. [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] every 5.3 years they play,” according to The New York Times. The 100 million dollars the NFL pledged to concussion research and the rule changes implemented to improve safety in the game since 2002 are simply not good enough.

I get that people who play do so voluntarily and often happily. But it’s not lost on me that wealth is being built on the physical labor of Black athletes who are not properly compensated or protected, as professor Tracie Canada astutely points out in her story for Scientific American. The NFL is just another traditional American business model that exploits and then disregards Black bodies. Players such as Colin Kaepernick have historically and aggressively discouraged from speaking out against the perils of Black life in the United States, let alone their experiences in the NFL.

While we still haven’t heard from Hamlin’s parents, Garrett Bush, an NFL insider, hit the nail on its head when he said, “All these heartwarming prayers and condolences do nothing for that mom.” Parents of Black children work overtime to protect them from the cruelty of race in the United States. It’s devastating to see your child work hard to live out their dream and still be haunted by what you’ve tried to protect them from all along.

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