Life-Threatening Injury to Buffalo Bills Damar Hamlin on Monday Night Football Tests League’s Crisis Planning
1/3/23 – – Injuries are a routine part of football. But from the reaction of the NFL players on the field in Cincinnati last night, you could immediately sense that what happened to Damar Hamlin was anything but routine. The Buffalo Bills’ young defensive back collapsed after taking a blow to his chest, suffering cardiac arrest.
Players from both teams, Bills and Bengals, frantically called to the sidelines for help, paced nervously, and with tears in their eyes began to pray. Athletic trainers and medical personnel were at Hamlin’s side within 10 seconds, administering CPR (we learned later that Hamlin’s heartbeat was restored on the field). An ambulance arrived within minutes as players knelt in a circle, surrounding their teammate and the professionals working to keep him alive.
As of this morning, Hamlin is being treated in the University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s highly regarded Level 1 Trauma Center. He is sedated and in critical condition. While there has been no official statement regarding the cause of Hamlin’s injury, speculation centers around a rare medical condition known as commotio cordis. This occurs when a blunt force to the chest — most often from a baseball, hockey puck or lacrosse ball — hits at just the wrong time in the heart’s rhythm cycle, causing arrhythmia. Without immediate intervention, the outcome is catastrophic.
Which brings me to the most important lesson of this still-unfolding crisis.
Damar Hamlin is alive because of the National Football League’s focus on preparedness. Here’s how USA Today described the NFL’s Emergency Action Plan:
Each week, the league runs through its emergency action plan with all 32 clubs, Vincent (Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations) said. Every stadium rehearses a medical situation such as this one annually. The plan is also brought up at the pregame meeting between coaches. Part of the plan involves having a Level 1 trauma center – designed to address the most serious medical emergencies – active in each home market. The plan also calls for an ambulance in each stadium, as well as an airway management physician on-site.
Let me be clear: There is much to criticize about the NFL’s communication last evening. Hamlin collapsed at 8:55 pm. League officials insist there was never a thought of continuing the game, but fans in the stadium and viewing the game on ESPN didn’t learn that the contest had been postponed until 10:00 pm. During the hour and five minutes, misinformation left the impression that the league was more concerned about getting the game restarted — the outcome had a bearing on multiple teams’ playoff hopes — than respecting the feelings of the traumatized players and Hamlin’s terrified family (his mom was in the stands and rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital).
It appeared that league officials took too long to pivot from competition to compassion.
There will be plenty of time for corporate communicators and crisis counselors to analyze the timeliness and content of official statements. It’s helpful to go to school on challenging, emotional situations like this. But at least equal time should be spent reviewing their own organizations’ crisis preparedness. Management teams should ask themselves, “Are we as prepared as the NFL to respond to known threats to our business and people?” “If tested, would our Emergency Action Plan perform as well as the NFL’s?”
Hamlin’s Monday night nightmare and the NFL’s life-saving response certainly should be a cautionary tale for organizers of age-group football, lacrosse, hockey, baseball and soccer. Are adjustments to required padding called for? Do you have personnel trained in CPR on-site for every game and practice? Do you require all coaches to get this qualification? Have you drilled to make sure protocols and procedures are in place to get an ambulance to your field or gymnasium as quickly as possible?
The NFL has the money to provide the resources and training necessary to achieve the impressive level of preparedness we saw on display last night. Companies, organizations, schools and youth sports leagues have to make difficult financial decisions to provide acceptable protections. It’s worth it to do your best. Lives and reputations depend on it.
The NFL made the right decision when it postponed last night’s game, and has not announced any rescheduling plans. That’s appropriate, given the attention that should be on Hamlin’s condition. So, for right now let’s give the NFL an A+ for preparedness and priorities, and a C- for communication. Most important of all, let’s pray that Damar Hamlin has a full recovery.