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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A skeptic in football paradise

Fans took in some of the N.F.L.’s Super Bowl pregame events on Saturday, including an oversize replica of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

By Kurt Streeter

It hasn’t been easy being a skeptic this past week, in this desert city, before the biggest sporting event on the American calendar.

Consider Damar Hamlin. The NFL wasn’t about to let anyone forget him, especially not during the glitz-and-glam run-up to the Super Bowl.

The young Buffalo Bills defensive back nearly died before our collective eyes on a cold Cincinnati night just six weeks ago. Who among us wasn’t pulling and praying for him? Who hasn’t seen the glimpses of his recovery and felt deep relief and joy?

The NFL never misses an opportunity to gild its image, even if that means promoting the fortunate outcome of a near tragedy. The league made sure Hamlin showed up in Phoenix. Sure enough, there he was Wednesday, accepting a community service award from the players’ union, dressed in a red suit, looking confident and sure.

And there he was again Thursday, at a red carpet NFL gala, standing in front of the trainers and doctors who saved his life. He thanked them, and spoke of continuing his quest to be a beacon of hope.

“I have a long journey ahead,” he said, “a journey full of unknowns and a journey full of milestones, but it’s a lot easier to face your fears when you know your purpose.”

I’m calloused about the NFL. But watching Hamlin in person Wednesday, I felt goose bumps. I could see a woman nearby shedding a tear.

What a narrative arc.

The NFL is more than a sports league. It is a narrative-spinning factory churning out gift-wrapped stories that drive its popularity and obscure its faults. Hamlin’s appearance in Phoenix was the perfect, made-for-streaming NFL plot point: a tragedy-turned-miracle wrapped in a bow and beamed to the world during Super Bowl media week.

The ugly violence that leaves many of the league’s players with debilitating damage? Hey, look over here on this stage — a fallen hero in the flesh, sending his appreciation and love.

All of the league’s other nettlesome problems? Well, why talk about all that when there’s another corporate-sponsored jubilee to attend.

So, yes, I’m dubious about football — and not just because I’m a reporter whose job requires skepticism.

I’m the father of a 12-year-old. I will never let him play the game, not given what is known about brain trauma. I’m an African American disgusted by the league’s failure to hire Black head coaches and stung by the fact that it took until 2023 for two Black quarterbacks to lead their teams in the Super Bowl. The league’s penchant for brushing misogyny under the rug is a stain I cannot abide.

That said, I’m no different from many other skeptics. I love the game, detest the game and am conflicted by the game. The NFL has a way of pulling me in. It’s the spectacle — the choreographed beauty and drama, the marvel of teams trying to find control amid utter chaos.

I know I’m hardly alone, even if, walking among the crowds at the multitude of fan events in sun-scorched Phoenix, being a doubter felt more than a little lonely.

The league adds to its reach and self-serving mythology by setting up camp at each year’s Super Bowl. It makes each host city its own: a traveling football road show that clamps down on a metropolis like an occupying army.

Phoenix and its flat maze of suburbs saw it all this week. Fan fests. Mixers. Photo ops. Award shows. Flag football. School visits sponsored by the NFL and “farm-to-table” meals sponsored by the Super Bowl host committee. Entire blocks felt like they were sponsored by Tostitos.

The light and airy mood of celebration works to hide the NFL’s woes.

My cynical side says this season should be forever remembered for how it made us think about the harm players face on the field, sometimes with terrible effects that are immediately obvious, at other times with terrible effects that might not show up for years.

In my view, no matter how Sunday’s game turns out, this will always be the season of Hamlin and Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins quarterback who sustained multiple concussions and became the latest example of the game’s risk to the brain. The image of Tagovailoa taking a hit so hard that his entire body seemed to convulse in a severe spasm should remain scorched into our collective memory.

The horror of those injuries, especially Hamlin’s near death, forced us to step back and take another look at the game and its costs.

But not so fast. Super Bowl week, as it does every year, got in the way, pushing the narrative in another direction.

It wasn’t only Hamlin’s appearance with his caregivers in tow. The league positioned itself as above the fray by offering free lessons to the public in CPR. The NFL commissioner gushed about the readiness of the league’s training staff for treating catastrophic injury.

As I walked the streets and talked to fans at the sprawling football-themed carnivals in downtown Phoenix, Hamlin and Tagovailoa were rarely mentioned. When I prodded, I was often told about the power of prayer and the significance of miracles, that Hamlin’s brush with death was merely a freak thing, that quarterbacks like Tagovailoa know the risks, so, hey, what to do?

“I know it’s a dangerous game,” one fan told me. “It’s probably more dangerous than I know or want to see. And I don’t ever plan to stop watching.”

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