One of my favorite photos is the old black and white gridiron classic of Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik standing over a prone and prostrate Frank Gifford like a victorious lion over his vanquished prey. It hearkens back to a form of football that didn’t care about anything other than winning, and doing it in the most violent way possible. Football was a proxy for war, a somewhat less civilized form of civilian combat, and the legends of the game like Vince Lombardi, Reggie White, Mike Ditka, and the guy who hit Joe Thiesmann would not recognize the new rules implemented in the wake of the concussion scandal.
Having spent most of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s watching the Eagles either soar or more often sink, I’m from that old era where hits were hits and the men who made them got up and dusted themselves off with a big, toothless smile. I recognize and understand the importance of the protocols put into place to avoid concussions, but I find it interesting that some veteran players think that those protocols open the door to other sorts of problems.
One of the guards at immigration court, a former NFL pro, told me today that he thinks the reason that Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on Monday night was the type of chest hit that he suffered, one directly to the solar plexus. My friend said that while he supports the rules around concussions, he thinks that the league failed to prepare players to make adjustments, and that a lot of the alternative forms of contact — including direct chest hits as opposed to helmet to helmet — could lead to exactly what happened on the field.
Not being an expert in anything except booing, seeing as how I’m from Philadelphia, I have to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. This, at least, is a reasonable explanation that doesn’t delve into the political maelstrom that many created last night on social media. I was disgusted by the number of people who, without any actual facts and only moments after Hamlin was taken off of the field in an ambulance, slyly suggested that this had to do with “the vax.” I generally ignore those folk, even though I myself respect anyone who refuses to take the vaccine for whatever personal or religious reasons they might have. Some of them are cult-like in their belief that the Covid vaccines are evil, dangerous and cause havoc. Hamlin didn’t deserve that.
I think the thing that most affected me after watching Hamlin fall was the reaction of the players on the field. Circling back to my original point about Bednarik and the raging lion, the mindset of most fans and players these days has shifted from one of armed combat to “safety first.” While there is still a desire to get into the mud and fight, and while most of the best games involve warrior-like moves, we Americans have changed our focus. Perhaps it’s due to the concussion controversy, and the light that’s been shed on the devastation caused by years of unprotected hits. Perhaps it’s our increasing aversion to conflict, except of course when that conflict involves social media and anonymous trolls spewing political garbage.
I honestly don’t know when it started happening, but I’ve noticed a genuine sea change in the way we talk about sports, particularly football. Maybe, and this will be an unpopular take, it has something to do with the increasing interest women have taken in football. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t get one of my girlfriends to go to a game with me. Even tempting them with free treats, tickets and the possible sighting of cute players wasn’t enough to get teen girls circa 1977 into Vet Stadium (granted, our seats were right below the notorious 700 section so perhaps they didn’t want to be pelted with beer, or vomited on-as I was-by a stranger seated one row behind.) Now, football is a sport that women love, and part of that might be the influx of female sportscasters and women-centric events like the campaigns against breast cancer.
I really don’t know, and as I said, some might call my comments sexist. It’s just clear that no one today would cheer Chuck Bednarik, roaring above his crumpled competitor.
Back in 1971, a Detroit Lion named Chuck Hughes had a heart attack on the field, and died. There was less than a minute left in the game, which they actually played to a finish. There was no thought of actually suspending, much less canceling, that game.
What a welcome difference 50 years makes. When Damar Hamlin was rushed off of the field in an ambulance, the tears in the eyes of the players, the anguish from the fans, and the absolute disbelief of the broadcasters presaged an important change: this game would not continue. There would be no taking up of arms, once again. This game was over, and that’s because we found a certain humanity that we never even knew we’d lost while cheering Concrete Charlie and his magnificent hit.
I’m glad to have been around for that change.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61