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After Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest, NFL had no choice but to suspend the big game | Opinion

USA TODAY SPORTS 1/3/2023 Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

Never mind the game.

Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during the first quarter on Monday night in Cincinnati and left Paycor Stadium in an ambulance, fighting for his life.

Football can wait. Needed to wait. It was time for prayers.

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His heart stopped beating.

Forget the seeding at stake for the upcoming NFL playoffs in the highly-anticipated matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. Your fantasy league? Doesn’t matter.

This was not about the next-man-up culture of the NFL.

Real life, we were reminded, is bigger than the mighty NFL.

MEDIA ANGLE: ESPN's immediate coverage of Damar Hamlin situation done with right tone

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NFL'S PROCESS: Medical advice for Damar Hamlin guided decision to postpone game

The NFL officially suspended the game after Hamlin, a 24-year-old second-year safety for the Bills, was administered CPR and required an AED after he collapsed following the type of hard tackle we’ve seen hundreds of times on any given week of action. The NFL confirmed to USA TODAY that an AED was used on the field. 

The Buffalo Bills gather while CPR is administered to Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) after a play in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals. © Sam Greene, The Enquirer The Buffalo Bills gather while CPR is administered to Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) after a play in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals.

What we haven’t seen was the grief of the players on both teams, in real time, sobbing on the field as they tried to come to grips with the trauma while first responders treated Hamlin and restored his heartbeat.

It was a terrifying sight, humanized by the traumatized Bills players who formed a human wall around Hamlin and the medics, preventing cameras from capturing the intimate visions of life-saving efforts that the world didn’t need to see – especially in real time.

Suddenly, the big game became second fiddle.

Who could play football after that?   

Initially, it appeared that the nationally televised showcase game might go on, as it would after a weather delay, after a brief warmup period for the teams.

“That’s ridiculous,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president for football operations, told reporters during a midnight conference call. “That’s insensitive. And that’s not a place that we should ever be in.”

Thankfully, the NFL really didn’t have a decision to make about the status of the game as a stadium full of stunned fans and millions watched on TV. It was a no-brainer. Hamlin’s life was all that needed to matter.

Hamlin was transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, a Level 1 trauma center about 2 miles from Paycor Stadium. As of Tuesday morning, he remained in critical condition while under sedation. While the bulk of the team flew back to Buffalo, several Bills players remained in Cincinnati to remain with Hamlin.

It’s an unspeakable tragedy that constitutes the worst nightmare for the NFL, an institution habitually under attack for safety measures and the long-term risks associated with a physical, violent sport. It’s hard to imagine that the NFL could have done anything with its rules to prevent what happened to Hamlin. But it could control its response.

Vincent, a former NFL defensive back, pushed back on a report that suggested the game would resume after a five-minute warmup period. Imagine the hit the oft-criticized NFL, for all that it has done in policy and messaging about player safety and wellness, would have taken if it tried to continue the game – which still probably wouldn’t have happened because players would have refused to play.

“I’m not sure where that came from,” Vincent said of the initial reports.

He should know. Vincent oversees the NFL Command Center at league headquarters in New York, the place where they conduct instant replay reviews and have a direct line of communication with the referees and other officials on-site at the games. As the crisis unfolded on Monday night, Vincent was in constant contact with referee Shawn Smith, NFL executive Dawn Aponte (who was the on-site liaison in Cincinnati), NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and players union chief DeMaurice Smith, among others. And through Smith and Aponte, Vincent was able to communicate with the head coaches, Buffalo’s Sean McDermott and Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor. Instead of a five-minute warmup, the teams went to their locker rooms, which is where they were when the NFL officially suspended the game

“Frankly, there was no time period for the players to get warmed up,” Vincent said. “The only thing that we asked was that Shawn communicate with both head coaches to make sure they had the proper time inside the locker room to discuss what they felt was best.”

We all know what was best. Common sense in a moment of crisis.

“Neither coach was talking about resuming play,” Vincent said. “The players weren’t. It was really about Damar.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Immediately, my player hat went on. How do you resume play when such a traumatic event occurred in front of you in real time?”

You don’t.

As former NFL safety Ryan Clark said on ESPN’s SportsCenter, “None of those men are emotionally equipped to handle this.”

What next? The NFL has a hard decision about whether to try to resume the game. With the playoffs looming, the Monday night showdown might have settled the top seed in the AFC as the Bills (12-3) needed a victory to stay ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs (13-3) and the Bengals (11-4) poised to claim the AFC North crown and the No. 1 seed, having defeated the Chiefs, as Buffalo also achieved, in a head-to-head matchup.

Meanwhile, the Week 18 slate includes the Bills hosting the New England Patriots, needing a victory to make the playoffs. And Cincinnati hosts the Baltimore Ravens, who needed a Bengals loss on Monday night to keep the possibility open of winning the division title.

Now it’s possible that the NFL could table the final game of Week 17 and finish its regular season with an imbalanced schedule for two teams. As the Covid-19 pandemic raged in 2020, the NFL furiously exercised all options and flexibility to play a complete schedule, revising the schedule along the way to account for outbreaks that hit various teams. The NFL wound up playing games on every single day of the week – including Tuesday and Wednesday – to pull off its mission for a complete season that preserved the integrity of the playoff races.

And even this season, as the Bills can attest, the NFL proved flexible, moving a Bills home game to Detroit in November as a blizzard approached.

Yet the league also had a backup plan in 2020, to be executed if it couldn’t play a complete schedule, which would have involved using winning percentages to rank the teams in the standings if there were an imbalanced number of games played.

It might be time for the league to execute that plan ... which in the grand scheme would be preferred over the Emergency Action Plan that was implemented on Monday night to save a man’s life.

It might not be ideal, but an imbalanced schedule for the Bills and Bengals wouldn’t be the worst-case scenario.

The NFL didn’t have an answer early Tuesday about what happens with the game as it relates to finishing it or the playoff picture.

“That’s not a consideration right now,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communication, public affairs and policy.

We understand. Never mind the game.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest, NFL had no choice but to suspend the big game | Opinion

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