Opinion: The NFL Is Using Damar Hamlin’s Injury To Cloak Its Racist Past

Opinion: The NFL Is Using Damar Hamlin’s Injury To Cloak Its Racist Past


Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Dec. 1, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP/Greg M. Cooper)

Almost a week after Damar Hamlin’s injury, the Buffalo Bills took the field against the New England Patriots. While hearts were heavy, Hamlin from a hospital bed in critical condition was able to cheer his team to victory.

The NFL decided to suspend the game in which Hamlin was injured and since then, every NFL team in unified solidarity changed their social media logo to show support for Hamlin. Injuries in the NFL are common. With players unable to participate while injured, many have injury clauses in their contracts. 

Hamlin is in his second year of a $3.64 million contract. His base salary is $825,000 or $455,000 if he spends the year on the injured reserve list. The Buffalo Bills and the NFLPA have agreed to work out a deal that would pay Hamlin in full. In an open letter to the fans, the NFL Commissioner said, “Seeing the entire NFL family — teams, players, coaches, and fans like you — band together was yet another reminder that football is family: human, loving and resilient.”

The NFL is America’s most powerful, richest sports league generating more than $17 billion in 2021. Hamlin’s treatment by the NFL is far from the norm.

All too often, many players have seen their careers come to an end due to injuries on the field. It takes three seasons to get vested in the NFL. The average NFL career is 3.9 years. Vested players receive a pension at 55 years of age, and the league covers their medical insurance for five years after play. The NFL moved its disability policy from $22,000 a month to $4,000 a month in the last collective bargaining agreement. The NFL also has a private board of medical professionals who have the power to deny players even if Social Security deems them disabled.

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Black players in the NFL account for over 70 percent of all players, yet the NFL has struggled with discrimination and racism.

From 1934 to 1946, NFL team owners agreed to completely ban Black players from playing football.  As America started to integrate its society out of the vestiges of Jim Crow, so did the NFL. Black people came flooding into the league in the ’60s with a few exceptions. The down-the-middle positions of center, inside linebacker, and quarterback were considered to be “thinking” spots. As such, they were seen as too cerebral for African American athletes.

The NFL practiced a form of discrimination among Black players called “racial stacking” – a sorting process in which individuals are funneled into certain positions based on stereotypes. In 1989, the Los Angeles Raiders hired its first Black head coach, Art Shell.

Many black coaches thought this move would open up the floodgates for many more Black coaches to follow — 24 years later in 2003, the NFL would institute the Rooney Rule, making it mandatory for every team seeking a head coach to interview at least one minority. This year, the NFL currently has two Black head coaches after the firing of Lovie Smith one year after he was hired by the Houston Texans.

The most egregious form of discrimination is how the NFL dealt with its CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) controversy. For many years they denied that they knew about CTE, and in their $1 billion payout settlement, Roger Godell didn’t have to admit that football causes CTE.

The NFL implored their medical professionals to use a practice called race norming, adjusting test scores to account for the race or ethnicity of test takers. With this method, the NFL was able to deny former Black players who showed a decline in their cognitive skills due to the fact the NFL doctors used criteria that assume Black people have lower cognitive skills than others. Even after lawsuits and 50,000 petitions from former players and family members, the NFL did not stop the racist practice of race norming until the George Floyd protests of 2020.

It’s my belief when you look at how the NFL has galvanized its messaging and media around the health of Damar Hamlin, that this league is trying to rebrand itself using one American Freedman tragedy as a race-positive cloak to cover up its racist, anti-Black, exploitative treatment of Black male bodies.

This league built a billion-dollar industry running Black men into each other until their bodies and brains no longer worked.  While the league is obligated to put these Black men back together after work-related injuries, in so many cases it decided to discard these once heralded men back into America’s bottom caste from which they came.

We can’t let the NFL media blindside us with a feel-good story of doing right by Damar when time and time again they’ve applied racist workplace practices to deny former players humane rights. While I hope Damar Hamlin makes a full recovery and gets to live his normal life, just know if the NFL wants to rebrand from its history of Black male body exploitation, it’s going to have to do way more than rectifying one man’s issue.

Ibrahim Tanner is the National Director of Media and Public Relations for USADOF (United Sons and Daughters of Freedmen), Ibrahim@usadof.org