I’d like to start off this post by stating that I am not a trained medical professional of any type, I have no political opinions or affiliations worth writing about, and everything I say is in the name of player safety.
Now, it’s a massive relief that Damar Hamlin is alive and well; but he was very close to not being able to play in another football game, let alone see one be played. Had it not been for the quick reactions and skilled coordination of the on-field medical and training staff, the Damar Hamlin saga could have a very different ending. And that brings us to one of the very important lessons to take away from this incident –
Youth Lacrosse and Safety
All youth lacrosse coaches, and coaches of all youth sports, must take mandatory CPR and first aid intervention classes to be certified to be on the sidelines. These classes are about as exhilarating as waiting in line to get a serving of tapioca pudding at a retirement home, yet it is impossible to understate the value of the information taught in these classes. The instructors often do a great job of trying to keep things as interesting as they can, but the coaches really need to recognize that the time spent in that class could be what puts them in the position to save someone’s life someday.
Coaches will learn manual CPR and how to recognize common emergencies seen in youth sports during these classes. Even with this information, Coaches are very rarely equipped to be fully prepared for emergencies like what Damar Hamlin experienced. That’s why having equipment like defibrillators and some form of personnel trained in emergency medicine at more youth sports will lead to a safer environment for sports. Rather than investing in the next luxury advancement in lacrosse, we need to ensure there is adequate medical safety equipment provided for all active US lacrosse programs. After all, if we fail to prepare these programs for when there is an emergency, we should be prepared to see these programs fail when an emergency happens.
Damar Hamlin and Commotio Cordis
I’m not going to speculate that Damar Hamlin suffered from Commotio Cordis, but enough medical professionals have done so for me to at least discuss the idea. And for those who are unaware of what I’m talking about, let me explain – Damar Hamlin is a second year Safety on the Buffalo Bills who suffered a form of cardiac arrest during the Bills’ game against the Bengals on January 2, 2023.
Hamlin collapsed on the field after a completely normal looking hit to the chest, but his collapse was not immediate. After walking around for a few seconds following the hit, Hamlin crumples and appears lifeless. Thankfully, the on-field players conveyed the severity of the situation to the fast-acting medical personnel who began enacting life-saving measures.
Without the actions of those involved, and without having an AED at their disposal, it’s unlikely that Damar Hamlin would be alive. However, he is here with us to continue the many inspiring works he accomplishes off the field, and his Buffalo Bills are set to play the Bengals in the second round of the NFL playoffs.
The condition I referenced above, Commotio Cordis, is a possible explanation for what caused Damar to experience this collapse. I think that the easiest way to think of Commotio Cordis is to envision your heart as a drummer keeping the rhythm for a band. No matter how loud a crowd may get during a concert, they normally can’t get the drummer off their groove and affect the music. But, if someone was to make a loud enough sound at the exact right moment between beats, you could startle the drummer and completely make them lose track of their place in the song. And when that happens, the drummer may just stop playing, and then the music stops, and then the concert is over – for good.
This “disruption” in the rhythm of someone’s heartbeat is very unlikely to occur during most impacts because the window for disruption is so small; yet it is clearly not impossible. And there are more examples than Damar Hamlin, and several of those are lacrosse players. And several of those lacrosse players were not as lucky as Damar Hamlin. And while we continue with the present course of action in the NFL because Damar Hamlin is ok, things would be very different if he had died. If that was the case, there would be immediate reevaluation of the safety protocols in football from the top-down. And we would likely have seen a very different level of enrollment in youth football the following year.
The Revolution of Player Safety
As I said above, lacrosse players have had Commotio Cordis occur after impacts on several unfortunate occasions. This makes sense considering most impacts in football are actually to the sides and shoulders of players, not directly in their chest. Lacrosse is different, not in how players hit each other, but in how the lacrosse ball poses a unique threat. Goalies are literally standing directly in the path of these hard-rubber projectiles, and field players can just as easily be caught in the crossfire.
Being hit with a lacrosse ball is not an inherent lethal danger, but there are many ways for a lacrosse shot to be deadly. I’ve personally met lacrosse players who have had fingers, ribs, jaw bones, and collar bones broken (and testicles ruptured) by errant lacrosse shots, and you can easily find several deaths documented. But these injuries have been responded to with sweeping regulation in the sport of lacrosse.
You may remember the change that occurred at the start of 2022 when all shoulder pads had to be “NOCSAE certified” under new parameters, which goalies had to adhere to in 2021. This change altered the shoulder pad and chest protector construction in several ways. Still, one of the leading initiatives was to help prevent disruptive blows to the chest that can cause cardiac-related issues – like commotio cordis.
This change in lacrosse pads is no surprise, as the sport has been working to become safer in several aspects. There are fewer significant hits in lacrosse, and the game has become more about speed than power on defense. Overall, there is a seemingly considerable push for this in the construction of the youth sport as a “safer” contact alternative to football. Changing the shoulder pad requirements is a step in the right direction, but it poses the question of whether that step is genuinely needed in the first place.
Illogical Problems In Player Safety
I once heard a comedian discuss the folly of motor/action sports in that clearly humans were not designed to be performing such activities, as evidenced by people having their heads crushed when things go awry. But rather than simply not taking part in such wildly dangerous activities, people designed protective equipment like helmets and body padding to lessen the chance of injury.
I’m not advocating for us to stop playing lacrosse in any way, but it appears that one of the greater threats to player safety in lacrosse is the ball. We put goalies in constant unnecessary danger during youth lacrosse when they could just as easily play the sport with a different type of ball.
I’ve tried to get this idea off the ground by advocating for different lacrosse balls, and people weren’t exactly receptive to it. But I still don’t see changing the composition of a lacrosse ball as something that would massively change the dynamics of the sport. And if we are willing to force every lacrosse player to purchase a new advancement in protection to prevent commotio cordis, why are we not looking at the problem from the other side of the equation? This would also greatly reduce the number of concussions related to errant shots, as well as helping goalies be truly fearless against all incoming shots.
If we can do anything to prevent unnecessary injuries in youth lacrosse without making gameplay wildly different, I’m all for it. We would even be able to integrate youth lacrosse genders without contact and entirely focus on stick skills to truly develop a faster version of field lacrosse as we advance the sport. Having integrated co-ed youth lacrosse without contact and with a softer ball would also help areas that are low in numbers put together more complete leagues and teams. This is all in the interest of helping reduce the number of lacrosse-related injuries each year, and the Damar Hamlin situation should have been a clear indicator that there is an ever-present danger we may never expect. And this is not a warning to insinuate that we should completely change our ways or forever live in fear, but it wouldn’t help for us to be a touch more prepared.