By Mark Gudgel, author, Think Higher, Feel Deeper: Holocaust Education in the Secondary Classroom.
Mark Gudgel is an assistant professor of education at the College of Saint Mary, a 17-year veteran of public-school education, Fulbright Scholar, and fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife and children.
When Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins put his shoulder into Bills safety Damar Hamlin, lunging for first-down yardage, I was watching the game from the treadmill in my laundry room, my fantasy football championship on the line. The impact of the hit didn’t appear extraordinary to anyone familiar with the game of American football, yet it caused Hamlin to go into cardiac arrest. CPR was performed and he was removed from the field in an ambulance and taken to a local hospital. Hamlin survived, but it would be a week before he would return to Buffalo, and his future in the NFL remains uncertain.
Interestingly, the throngs of commentators and sports lovers who took to television, radio, and social media largely managed to feign surprise. “We’ve never seen this before,” they all murmured into their microphones, many of them in tears. Words like “shocking” and even “unprecedented” were ubiquitous on the airwaves. Yet the reality that such an impact can cause ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia, both types of arrhythmias that cause the heart to stop beating, was far from new information. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the condition is fatal approximately 90% of the time if experienced outside of a hospital. A 2011 study revealed that Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) is the leading medical cause of death in NCAA student-athletes. The information was readily available. So were the anecdotes.
Damar Hamlin may have been the first case of cardiac arrest in 2023, and the incident became widely known in part because it occurred during Monday Night Football which has some of the best viewership of anything on television. But the reality is this happens a lot.
In 2021, a Danish footballer Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest in the midst of a tournament. Today he plays for Manchester United. Saint Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger took a puck to the chest that stopped his heart in a playoff game. He was the first of two Blues defensemen to suffer this fate, as in 2020 Jay Bouwmeester collapsed of cardiac arrest on the bench during a game. These people all survived, due in part to excellent medical professionals being present. But this isn’t always the case. Marc-Vivien Foé, a Cameroonian footballer, died while playing in the FIFA Confederation Cup in 2003. And even if your sports knowledge begins and ends with the NFL, Detroit Lion Chuck Hughes died on the field of play from a heart attack in 1971.
For sports commentators to pretend they didn’t know that cardiac arrest can be caused by sudden impact is at best to admit a most willful level of ignorance, and at worst to signal a general indifference to human life. Put another way, it’s 2023 and you have a super computer in your pocket right now; if you don’t know something—especially about the sport you talk about for a living—it’s because you don’t want to know it.
The idea of willful ignorance has practical application to my field of research. One of the areas I study is genocide education, that is, how we teach about genocide and human rights, something I became interested in after studying and teaching about the Holocaust. One of the things I enjoy most is presenting the research I’m currently doing in Bosnia, or the research I’m conducting on educational practices in the United States, to groups of people who are interested in what I’m studying. The information I share, e.g. that 25% of American teachers have less than a week to teach about the Holocaust, or the fact that Schindler’s List is, despite its relative age, by far and away the most-used film for teaching about the Holocaust, is often news to my audiences, but the fact that the Holocaust took place is not. We may not be acquainted with every little detail, but we are not ignorant of the big picture.
Yet the fact remains that “never again” amounts to little more than the mantra of the too late, an oral assuagement of guilt that neither brings anyone back to life nor inspires the changes necessary in order to prevent future atrocities. All around the world today, our fellow human beings are suffering, from women in Iran and Afghanistan to the people of Ukraine, the Yazidis of Iraq, the Rohingya of Burma, the Uighurs of China, and many more. Though I have a great interest in this field, I would not claim to possess detailed knowledge of each of these events. What I do possess, however, is a willingness not to remain ignorant, and the same super computer in my pocket that everyone else has.
This International Holocaust Remembrance Day, my hope is that each of us will find our own way, perhaps small but certainly still meaningful, to honor the victims of the Holocaust. The night Damar Hamlin took the blow to his chest that stopped his heart, I got off my treadmill and donated a small amount of money to his charity. It was feeble, perhaps, but it was all I could think to do in response. A few days later, the friend who was “playing” me in the fantasy football championship and I decided jointly to share the title and to donate the substantially larger sum of money we had bet on our silly game to Hamlin as well. “Never again,” we seemed to be saying, assuaging the muddle of emotions we were feeling by throwing money at a problem we both knew it would not fix. And yet… and yet. The power was not in our small sum of money, but in the combined efforts of millions more who, like us, saw the importance of this moment and wanted to do something—anything—to try to help. Today, Hamlin’s foundation has raised nearly nine million dollars from more than 247,000 individual donations.
For athletes not to be in danger of cardiac arrest from an impact to the heart will require changes that most sports leagues have signaled they are unwilling to make. The show must go on, after all. Yet it is possible, with millions of people indicating a newfound interest, perhaps freshly-cured of their ignorance of the possibility, that the NFL will be forced to take meaningful action to protect those who play the game for our amusement.
Similarly, for humanity to not be in danger of eradication at the hands of those forces in the world that would seek to oppress or even wipe out whole populations for personal or political gain, likewise requires changes that, thus far, the international community has clearly signaled an unwillingness to undertake. And yet it is possible here as well, that if millions of people were to indicate a newfound interest, to be freshly cured of their ignorance, that the world could be forced to take meaningful action.
Photo by Pixabay