On Monday night, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, in the course of what appeared to be a routine tackle, received a hard hit to the chest. He got up from the turf, stepped backward, then collapsed.
Since his fall, the public has fixated on Hamlin’s condition. By the time the game was officially suspended with 5:58 left in the first quarter, it had become the most watched “Monday Night Football” game in ESPN history. The story was front page news on the New York Times for three consecutive days, matching the coverage devoted to the vote for House Speaker and the war in Ukraine . Hamlin’s online toy drive, which had a goal of $2,500 before his collapse, soon topped $8 million in donations. President Biden called Hamlin’s parents to offer support, then tweeted about it.
Why the fascination? Damar Hamlin is a well-respected and well-liked athlete, but he hardly qualifies as a superstar. He was a 6th round draft pick in 2021, and was used sparingly in his rookie year. He did not win a starting position until September, when his teammate Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury. It is safe to say that before his collapse, few sports fans outside Buffalo knew much about him. Yet he has become a national celebrity, with millions of people, including many who do not even follow football, keeping up with the daily medical updates and praying for his recovery.
The answer may lie in the trade that we strike with the superbly conditioned men and women who entertain us by playing professional sports. They are our heroes. But they are not our gods. The distinction is important and relevant to the trade.
Greek mythology included gods and heroes. The gods, who were immortal, created a race of heroes. These beings were especially powerful and noble, endowed with god-like qualities, but unlike gods, heroes were mortal. Characters from the classics such as Jason, Achilles, and Odyssesus, were such heroes, more vulnerable and at the same time more interesting than gods.
In our contemporary sports mythology, we ask our athletes to entertain us with heroic deeds. In return, we give them our worship.
We spectators feel closer to our heroes when events occur that remind us of their mortality. We could never imagine ourselves calmly seeking out open receivers while 300-pound behemoths are charging toward us; or posing gracefully while performing aerial cartwheel-back handsprings on a wooden beam less than 4 inches wide. But we can imagine pain, injury, and disappointment, because all of these are part of the human condition, widely shared among us.
When athletes like Hamlin endure these conditions, it reminds us that they are heroes, not gods. They are mortal – and therefore more appealing to us fellow mortals.
This appeal may explain why so many iconic moments of sport involve not merely outstanding performance, but outstanding performance mixed with suffering. This goes back to ancient times. We do not honor Pheidippides because he completed the 26-mile run from the plain of Marathon to Athens to bring the news of the Greek victory. We honor him because he suffered death doing so.
In 1996, the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastic team won its first team gold medal in history. The feat we remember most of that legendary team is Kerri Strug’s vault landing, made after suffering a third degree lateral sprain and tendon injury. It was an impressive vault, but it was not the team’s best. We remember it more than the other performances because this one involved pain and injury, and the spirit to overcome them. It was the feat of a heroine, not a goddess. We ordinary viewers who witnessed her landing could identify with her grimace far more than we could with her other accomplishments.
One of the most famous photographs in NFL history portrays quarterback Y.A. Tittle at the end of a storied career, during which he was twice named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, and twice threw more touchdown passes in his 14-game seasons than Joe Montana and John Elway ever threw in threw in their 16. But his most famous photograph depicts a broken warrior, after having been thrown to the ground. He has just suffered a concussion and a broken sternum. We identify with Tittle because we see a mortal enduring human pain. A hero, not a god.
What do our heroes receive from this trade? What do they get for entertaining us?
Our heroes receive our love and worship. They aspire to be gods, and our adoration is the nectar that feeds them.
Damar Hamlin is 24 years old. If he recovers (and the most recent medical bulletins indicate that he will), he will probably choose to return to the field. He won’t be alone. NHL star Chris Pronger took a slapshot to the chest and suffered the same kind of cardia arrest as Hamlin. His heart stopped on the ice. He recovered, then chose to play 12 more seasons en route to the Hall of Fame.
If Hamlin makes this choice, and accepts the risks, it will be because he aspires to be a god, not just a hero. Gods not only accomplish superhuman feats. Gods are immortal.
In 1984, a study conducted by Dr. Robert Goldman purported to show that out of a pool of 198 world-class athletes, more than half would take a drug that would guarantee them athletic success in every contest they entered, even when told that the same drug would kill them in 5 years. The study has been subjected to skeptical criticism. But it’s very possible that the critics have misunderstood the true lesson of the study. Despite the way the question was posed to the athletes – “Would you take a drug that would guarantee success even if it would kill you in 5 years?” — it is possible that many athletes answered Yes because they did not truly believe the premise of the question. As heroes, they aspired to god-like immortality. They may have answered Yes, not because they were willing to die in 5 years, but because they did not believe that they would die. If they achieved universal success in every contest, they would become gods. As such, no drug could kill them.
This may help explain why the bargain struck between spectators and athletes appeals so much to our heroes. Our adoration conveys to our heroes the hope of achieving god-like immortality.
Witness Tom Brady. He is universally considered the GOAT: the greatest quarterback of all time. He has led teams to 7 Super Bowl victories, more than any other player or any other franchise. He has won Super Bowls in three separate decades. He is the oldest NFL MVP at age 40, the oldest Super Bowl MVP at age 43, and the oldest quarterback selected to the Pro Bowl at age 44.
In 2022, at the age of 44, he retired – for 40 days. Then he announced his return to football. For Tom Brady, being the GOAT is not enough. He desires immortality. And as part of the bargain, his fans’ idolization conveys the false hope that he can achieve it.
A.E. Housman’s greatest poem, To An Athlete Dying Young, relates to more than its title. It also references athletes who do not die young, but rather live on too long. The poet comforts the youthful athlete with these words:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
Aging heroes run the risk of wearing their honors out. Craving fame, they defy time. But time will not be ignored. Not by ordinary mortals, not even by extraordinary heroes. Only gods can defy time. And gods are not drafted by the NFL.