Posted on January 9, 2023

Damar Hamlin’s Collapse Highlights the Violence Black Men Experience in Football

Tracie Canada, Scientific American, January 6, 2023

Millions of people watched as Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old player in the National Football League (NFL), executed a seemingly routine tackle during a highly anticipated Monday Night Football game. Immediately after, Hamlin rose to his feet and then collapsed. Players from his team, the Buffalo Bills, and the opposing team, the Cincinnati Bengals, created a tight huddle around him on the field as medical personnel tried to revive him. We learned the next day that Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest; his heart had suddenly stopped working.

This scene was horrific for both its regularity and its exceptionality. Matt Gutman of ABC tweeted as much: “The scariest part of this is that the hit was in fact not scary. It looked terrifyingly ordinary.” The ordinariness of men running into each other at full speed represents a normalized—even rationalized—violence that is routine to this American game.

This ordinary violence has always riddled the sport and it affects all players. But Black players are disproportionately affected. While Black men are severely underrepresented in positions of power across football organizations, such as coaching and management, they are overrepresented on the gridiron. Non-white players account for 70 percent of the NFLnearly half of all Division I college football players are Black. Further, through a process called racial stacking, coaches racially segregate athletes by playing position. These demographic discrepancies place Black athletes at a higher risk during play.

As a cultural anthropologist, I’ve spent the last decade learning how Black college football players navigate the exploitation, racism, and anti-Blackness that are fundamental to its current system. {snip}

Football is a spectacle where excessive violence is mundane, because hits that cause injuries are a constant occurrence, and spectators are desensitized to it. Consumers of the sport assume players will withstand any bodily affront, so they are shocked when a player’s physical limits are exceeded, often on very public stages. People with a vested interest in professional football rationalize excessive violence in this structured space, as well as the ones that encompass college, high school and peewee play, all because they assume that rules, equipment, and regulations exist to prevent death. But this is false protection. While this form of entertainment has been normalized, Hamlin’s injury demonstrates that ordinary violence has potentially deadly consequences, and highlights how Black men’s athletic labor sustains this brutal system.

On these playing fields, ones that sociologist Billy Hawkins would argue are never theoretically far from plantation fields, financial stakeholders value Black bodies for their productive potential and physical prowess. The league encourages and facilitates rigorous training and disciplining so players can execute seemingly impossible corporeal demands, all in the service of entertainment, money-making, and insatiable fandom. In the words of sociologist and activist Harry Edwards, “like a piece of equipment, the black athlete is used.” {snip}


In a way that is reminiscent of Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers’ theorization of flesh, these situations demonstrate how organizations, administrators and fans dismiss each player’s personhood, strip them of their humanity and reduce them to mere bodies. No football athlete deserves this treatment. They should not be expected to play after enduring, experiencing and witnessing bodily traumas. Further, to dismiss the almost certain breaking down of their bodies as just part of the game is a process of objectification and commodification that prioritizes the player over the person in a way that Black feminist scholar bell hooks says calls to mind “the history of slavery and the plantation economy.” The anti-Blackness of the system is inescapable.