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Column: When tragedy struck, the NFL was unprepared

The league’s skewed priorities led to an egregious failure following Damar Hamlin’s collapse.

Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin Critical After MNF Collapse Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

By this time, most of the sports-following world is aware of what happened during this week’s Monday Night Football matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, when Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in the first-quarter.

What we watched live was Hamlin take a big hit in the chest during a play, after which he got up and then suddenly collapsed. We now know from a team statement that Hamlin, 24, suffered a cardiac arrest after the play and remains in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

But for many agonizing minutes Monday night, it was unclear to everyone – fans, teammates, opponents, coaches, reporters – what had happened and whether Hamlin would be OK.

Upon his collapse, multiple players from both teams surrounded him in concern while athletic trainers, independent medical professionals and local paramedics provided help. He received CPR on the field before being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. The Bills players immediately knelt down in prayer.

It was clear to everyone watching that this was a frightening, traumatic incident for everyone in the Stadium, particularly for the teammates, coaches and staff who know and love him. And yet, it took more than 20 minutes from the time Hamlin collapsed for the game to be temporarily suspended. And it took approximately another 45 minutes from that point to call the game altogether.

The League has not yet announced whether the game will be replayed. And frankly, that doesn’t matter.

I want to acknowledge that there is little-to-no protocol in place for this because it so rarely happens. This is, thankfully, not a particularly regular occurrence. And with this game being so late in the season and the playoff and Super Bowl dates being locked, there are logistical implications for the League that those of us at home aren’t considering.

There, I’ve acknowledged it. And you know what? It’s still a load of crap that it took so long to call that game.

Those of us who love sports deeply do so because so much of the time, they feel like more than a game. The energy, the passion, the community – they are transcendent.

But it was so clear watching Monday night’s game that far too often, we forget that sports are just a game. Silly little boys throwing around a silly little ball. And never — no matter how many scheduling logistics or millions of dollars are on the line — NEVER will that be more important than the value of a human being’s life.

In the days to come, the NFL will have to sort out the logistics. But none of that needed to be discussed, let alone sorted out Monday night.

What needed to be prioritized - the ONLY thing that needed to be prioritized - was Hamlin’s health and the emotional wellbeing of those who know and love him, along with anyone who was present and dealing with the trauma of what they had witnessed.

The League failed miserably in waiting as long as they did to call the game, forcing players and coaches to wait in the locker room for the League’s decision about whether the game would continue.

Many Bills players were visibly emotional and in great distress. Receiver Stefon Diggs was weeping on the field, and while the team returned to Buffalo, some of the players chose to stay behind to be near the hospital where they could visit their teammate. And every single one of them deserved better than to have to wait in uncertainty and agony for the League’s decision about game play.

In the wake of Monday’s game, the League (and other professional leagues) need to take a long, hard look both at their priorities and their protocol to ensure games are immediately called in the wake of a tragic situation and to keep the health, well-being and emotional safety of players and coaches front-of-mind always.

While we sincerely hope nothing like this ever happens again, that is impossible to know, and the League needs to remain prepared for such a circumstance so they don’t fail their players like they did during last night’s inexplicable holding pattern.

Our thoughts and prayers remain with Damar Hamlin for a full recovery and with the Buffalo Bills organization and all his loved ones during this time. And to the NFL, such a failure on your part to prioritize human beings over football must never happen again.