Damar Hamlin collapse reignites NFL safety debate. Is the league falling short?

Click to play video: 'NFL under fire for response to Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest'
NFL under fire for response to Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest
WACH: Millions of football fans were horrified when Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin needed CPR after collapsing on the field during a game. Eric Sorensen explains what happened moments before Hamlin fell over, the concern from fans, and the criticism against the NFL – Jan 3, 2023

The National Football League (NFL) is under increased scrutiny after Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed on field during a game on Monday night.

The game between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals took a chilling and expected turn in the first quarter when 24-year-old defensive back Hamlin had to undergo cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) after falling to the ground following a tackle. The NFL postponed the game after the medical staff rushed him to the intensive care unit as players and fans watched the events unfold in shock and grief.

Read more: Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapses after tackle, in ‘critical condition’

In the wake of this latest tragedy, experts say safety protocols in football need to be carefully reviewed and risks to players minimized.

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Bruce Kidd, professor emeritus of sports studies at the University of Toronto, said football is like a “double-edged sword” given the “tremendous” risk of serious injury to players but also the entertainment it provides to fans.

“It’s a sport that we love because of the speed, because of the drama and because of the clash of beautiful moving bodies,” Kidd said.

But, “where do you draw the line that the risk is too high?”

“The trick is minimizing the risk while allowing those players’ benefits and the cumulative benefits to occur.”

Seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady said on social media that the moment “put into perspective what it means to play this game we love.”

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Jack Goodman, an expert on cardiac health and exercise and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, said while it’s impossible to eliminate all health-related risks in sports, emergency action plans need to be in place to be able to respond in a timely fashion.

“We have the emergency equipment in place, but the plan of its use really needs to be refined,” he said.

“One of the ways we manage the risk is to make sure that we’ve got great response plans in place so that we can save someone’s life from this very kind of thing.”

Click to play video: 'Damar Hamlin collapse: Image of a ’24-year-old world-class athlete receiving CPR going to stick with me,’ says Bills reporter'
Damar Hamlin collapse: Image of a ’24-year-old world-class athlete receiving CPR going to stick with me,’ says Bills reporter

NFL rule changes

The NFL says it is “committed to protecting players from unnecessary risk, while keeping the game fair, competitive and exciting.”

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Since 2002, the league says it has made more than 50 rule changes “intended to eliminate potentially dangerous tactics and reduce the risk of injuries.”

The NFL Competition Committee reviews and recommends any rule changes after receiving input from coaches, general managers, owners, players, the NFL Players Association and medical personnel.

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Amid concerns about a surge in concussion injuries, in 2018, NFL made it a foul for a player to lower his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. Last year, the league tweaked that rule to penalize “forcible contact.”

Kidd said such prohibitions are a “step in the right direction,” but questioned whether rules need to be further strengthened.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) falls to the turf as Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) helps him during the first half of an NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel

Cardiac arrests in sport

This is not the first time a professional athlete has suffered a life-threatening injury, such as a cardiac arrest or heart attack, on the field.

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At the Euro 2020 championships, Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen collapsed during his country’s match against Finland in Copenhagen.

The 29-year-old midfielder, who suffered a cardiac arrest, had to receive life-saving CPR on the pitch before he was rushed to the hospital.

Read more: Why do super-fit, young athletes suffer sudden cardiac arrest?

In 2012, English player Fabrice Muamba’s heart stopped beating for 78 minutes and he almost died after collapsing on the pitch during an FA Cup match. He was 23 at the time.

Other soccer players and professional athletes have died as a result of cardiac arrests.

In 2003, midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe collapsed in the 72nd minute of Cameroon’s 1-0 victory against Colombia in a Confederations Cup match in Lyon, France and died shortly afterwards.

Click to play video: '‘He was gone’: Denmark’s Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest, but tests normal doctor says'
‘He was gone’: Denmark’s Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest, but tests normal doctor says

Medics spent 45 minutes trying to restart Foe’s heart before he was pronounced dead. His autopsy found the Olympique Lyonnais player suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a hereditary condition that increases the risk of collapse during exercise.

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In cycling, Belgian rider Michael Goolaerts died after suffering a cardiac arrest during the Paris-Roubaix cycling classic in 2018.

Canadian-born Italian ice hockey player Darcy Robinson died after suffering a heart attack and passing out during a top-flight match in Italy in 2007.

Read more: NFL player’s on-field emergency hits close to home for football community, says Winnipeg linebacker

Even though the occurrences are rare, young and fit athletes are not immune to heart problems, experts say.

“The most important thing to remember is that it’s not the sport per se that causes these terrible events, it’s an underlying condition …  or a very, very, rare culminating event,” Goodman said.

“Everything has inherent risks, and the trick is to manage those risks and to accept what is considered to be reasonable.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Hamlin remained in critical condition after spending the night in intensive care with no further update or details on his health.

— with files from Global News’ Katherine Aylesworth, The Associated Press and Reuters

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