The Sentimentality of Brutality

The unfortunate injury to Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin became a singular conduit for the outpouring of much rich, sugary sympathy. While it was not a happy event, the lengths people went to speak of their care, support, and feeling went beyond what the situation required. How many knew this player before his injury or cared one whit about him?
But lost in the wave of support and positivity toward him was the fact that injuries are quite common in this sport many follow religiously. The players are quite literally beating their brains for mere entertainment. One study found that 99% of former N.F.L. players’ brains showed “the diagnostic signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head trauma” ( The risk of drastic injury is fairly high among these large, uncommonly athletic men routinely running into each other like repetitive car crashes. Injury is not avoidable, but the cost of doing business. Football at the professional level is a brutal sport—make no mistake.
Behind the fan’s image of loyalty and team success, the players are sacrificing their bodies for a compressed payday. The average career length for an N.F.L. player is around 3 years. They are trading their body’s health for short term money and esteem. It is odd to meet a former pro player in his early 50s who has had hip replacements and walks like a 90 year old. Do fans really care about the well-being of players—or is a single dog-and-pony show merely a fig leaf? From the Christian point of view, what good or loving act can come from a meaningless game? The players are not suffering for another’s good or to help someone. It is not comparable to our Savior’s death for sinners—the whole world being the beneficiary.
Why the outpouring of emotion for a no-name player? It was a public and dramatic event, and so became the focal point for the sports world to unite. Even non-sports people wanted updates on his status. Were people just jumping on the bandwagon? Sure, but why? It became a mountain peak of emotion, sympathy, and trite sentimentality—in other words, a giant distraction from the brutish game itself which chews up players and spits them out. Hamlin became a touchstone—the very idea of him—for people to demonstrate their niceness and goodwill. In a pastime in which people routinely damage themselves, this was an unexpected type of injury and death could have been the result. People were even willing to sacrifice that one game—knowing that football the sport would survive in the long run. It became a ceremonially designated altar upon which to make a show of caring and sympathy. How could anyone say otherwise? People were falling all over themselves to demonstrate their niceness.
One (football-wise) insignificant player received so many public tokens of out-sized care and support. Like a well-oiled liturgy, it became the designated spot to show you care and are human, before going back to watching giants collide with each other in timed unison. But what about all the other players less visibly injured and ruining their bodies for the future? If an injury doesn’t happen on TV and isn’t immediately noticed, does it count as real? This in a sport, unlike the other major ones, that does not hand out guaranteed contracts. A player is one injury away from being cut. Do sports fans really care about the health and well-being of the players?
In many ways the outpouring over Hamlin covers up the bigger issue that the worship of an optional, non-important game actually causes real physical harm to many—not just one. But the overwhelming demonstration of positivity toward one player and injury does nothing for those who have used up their bodies for the watching pleasure of others. Former players are more honest, as when Troy Aikman suggested once that he would not let his own son play the game that gained him fame and fortune.
For one game (without big stakes) and public moment the dirge rang out and everyone was expected to go along with it. As our Lord said, the world demands we match the tune it plays: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matt. 11:17). We live in a world which worships sports and builds up crucial matches into Judgment Day-type revelations. Sports has replaced real life in importance and reverence for some delusional fans. The team outcome is more real and significant then anything that could happen to them in their actual lives.
The love of brutality and violence is even increased by mixed-martial arts and other types of fighting sports. It seems to say more about the viewer and fan that these types of bloody sports are in demand and so relished. It is now good clean fun to watch people hurt each other? The need to demonstrate that we care about the figures doing battle in the fan’s behalf is real. But real love would not want anyone to be hurt for no purposeful reason—love does not consist of just a small show of feeling over one single injury within a scheme that decimates bodies without remorse. —ed.