January 4, 2023 - 7:15am

During the Monday Night game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills — two of the biggest teams in the NFL — 24-year-old Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after making a seemingly routine tackle of Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin, an unheralded 2021 draft pick out of the University of Pittsburgh, had emerged as an important player for the Bills in his second season, so initial commentary focused on the injury’s impact to his team.

However, as the minutes passed and Hamlin was administered CPR prior to being transported to a hospital, concern shifted to the player’s well-being. After hours of delay, the game was suspended — a first for the NFL, where prior injuries, including the career-ending cervical vertebrae breakages that paralysed stars Darryl Stingley and Dennis Byrd, had only briefly interrupted the state of play. 

Almost within minutes, Hamlin’s collapse — the result of a cardiac arrest for which he is currently being treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center — had moved from a spontaneous tragic event to an opportunity to advance Covid-related agendas. On one side, long-time reality television personality Dr. Drew Pinsky and former UFC contender Jake Shields, among many others, rushed to lay blame for the incident on the Covid vaccine. 

Pinsky used the now-standard “another athlete who dropped suddenly” formulation, while Shields referenced a Rasmussen poll that found one in four Americans knew someone who has “died suddenly” after receiving the vaccine (a 2011 Scripps Howard News Service poll revealed that a similar percentage of Americans “believed they had seen an angel or knew someone who has”). Hamlin’s vaccine status has not been disclosed, but presumably he, unlike notably unvaccinated teammate Cole Beasley, received at least a dose of the vaccine when the NFL mandated it as a condition of play.

On the other side, Long Covid sufferers seized upon Hamlin’s collapse as an opportunity to note that Covid after-effects resulting from the disease itself, rather than the vaccine, have been tied to an increase in deaths from cardiac arrest. “People risk ceding unnecessary ground to antivaxxers by not acknowledging this,” wrote one. Once again, commenters had been provided no information on Hamlin’s prior Covid infection status; without that knowledge, it would be difficult to say whether the sequelae of Covid played a role in organ damage leading to cardiac arrest.

At any rate, Hamlin — a community leader throughout his high school and college years in Pittsburgh whose local charity quickly raised $4 million in the hours following his injury — deserves better than to serve as a jumping-off point for idle speculation. Whereas the heart attack death of 27-year-old Minnesota Vikings tackle Corey Stringer at training camp in 2001 merely represented an opportunity for commentators to discuss the heavy weights of NFL offensive linemen and the dangers of practicing in the summer heat, today it would stand in for much more. 

Infectious ideas have been memed into the discourse and are shared via social media in a call-and-response manner whenever tangentially related to the topic at hand: every cardiac arrest is related to Covid or the Covid vaccine, every inclement weather event is related to climate change, every police shooting is related to systemic racism, every mass shooting is related to America’s inability to alter its constitutional right to bear arms. 

Admittedly, there is something to each of these claims, including both Covid-related arguments cited in the wake of Hamlin’s cardiac arrest. Some research does seem to indicate that incidents of cardiac arrest among athletes under the age of 35 have increased in the previous year related to prior periods; some research indicates that Long Covid, although “discovered by patients, not by doctors or researchers” as neurologist Peter Robinson noted in a recent article, is a real disease. 

But neither of these things should matter for our immediate understanding of Hamlin’s fate: he is a good man who fell down on the field while playing an inherently dangerous game, and he deserves better than to have his injury serve as a cudgel with which opposing parties can bash each other for clout and clicks. 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work