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NFL

Football Games Aren’t Mandatory

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 2: A Paycor Stadium video board reads that the game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals is suspended due to an injury sustained by Bills safety Damar Hamlin #3 during the first quarter of an NFL football game on January 2, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

For reasons that escape reason, the NFL is still wrestling with the conundrum of fitting the Buffalo-Cincinnati game into a schedule made unforgiving by their previous schedules. Fine, I suppose, for those in the league office who need busywork fitting this dodecahedron into a trapezohedron-shaped peg, but what we are not hearing is the cry of people outside Roger's workshop who want the game restored.

That's because there is none. For a nation that we have been sold craves football in all its forms, there seems to be little interest in this all-important-yet-not-important-at-all 272nd game. With Damar Hamlin still needing help breathing, the lack of concern over a game that might but might not determine the top seed in the AFC is comprehensive.

In short, America has spoken by not speaking. They don't need this game to complete their viewing pleasure, and even schedule completists who watched the league tie itself into psilocybin pretzels to complete the COVID schedule of 2020 are showing no measurable interest in squeezing this marquee matchup into what the Brits like to call an overcrowded fixture list.

So, a simple solution that pleases everyone in that it offends no one is to simply call it a non-game. Buffalo and Cincinnati will play one less game than everyone else, Buffalo gets the bye, and Cincinnati will simply have to deal with the scheduling inequity knowing that it wasn't caused by anything but an unforeseeable tragedy that is still playing out. Only the ghouliest of ghouls would start any sentence with, "Well, if Hamlin hadn't gotten hurt..." and while we know those ghouls exist, we can muster up the strength to ignore them, or if we must interact, to mock them for having evacuated their souls into a stadium parking lot port-a-potty.

It may concern the NFL's highest of highs that a single game has been rendered less than nationally vital, but they'll get over it the way they cheerfully dumped games during any of their several lockouts. Those games were declared entirely fungible based simply on contract negotiations that management was winning anyway, so it's not like the games are gifts from the heavens that cannot be spurned. Even this game, which would only decide what team doesn't play in two weeks, is easily disposable given the horrendous circumstances.

Even more, nobody is harmed by it not being played. Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor, who has the most reason to want the game to be played, seemed properly and nobly uninterested in it Monday night by inserting his humanity in the place where his hypercompetitiveness would normally be found. Bengals owner Mike Brown already has the ticket money, the parking money, and a hefty piece of the concessions money, so he isn't harmed even though his reputation as the cheapest of skates is well-worn. ESPN, which struggled to air the game and got more eyeballs through a nation of rubberneckers than it would have if the game had just been a game, might feel a bit of a pinch, but they can fight with the league over a rebate. It's no concern of ours. The league can invent a Celebrity Pro Bowl and give the network that if they get whiny about it.

You see, the show must not necessarily go on (something the NCAA is hellbent on finding out by suggesting that their basketball tournament isn't four teams too large but 22 teams too skimpy, an idea hailed by all humans everywhere as stupid with a side of repellent). We love our entertainments, but there is a third rail for even our obsessions and Damar Hamlin on a ventilator seems to be a good place to put it. 

But here's an idea. Since the players and coaches were the ones who decided that they would not continue Monday under any circumstances and said as much to the messengers with their five-minute warmup note—one of many examples of principle on display in Cincinnati that night—why not ask them what they want to do? They don't even have to be asked about the logistics of jamming two games into this coming weekend, or cutting out the Super Bowl bye week, or any of the other stupid stuff the league pays its staff drones to assemble and adjust. Just "Do you guys want to do this or not? Your vote counts, and only your vote."

If they say yes, then yes it should be. And if they say no, no it should be as well. After all, they showed what players together can do in the face of an indignity, just as the Milwaukee Bucks did when they chose not to play Game 5 of their playoff series against Orlando in the bubble over the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the NBA followed suit postponing other games in recognition of Milwaukee's stand. The WNBA players have made a series of equivalent stands in their roles as the leading bearers of conscience in sport. This is player empowerment in a way that an extra year of free agency is not.

In short, rather than wait for the NFL to decide, or even ask the league what its plans are, let's let the players decide. It's their game and their lives, a statement once considered tedious and trite but now all too real.

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