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The NFL finds itself in uncharted territory as the regular season ends this weekend


The NFL's regular season ends this weekend with much of the football world still reeling after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night. Hamlin remains hospitalized in Cincinnati, but his breathing tube has been removed, and he's able to talk. He's even said a few words to his teammates over video. The Bills-Bengals game in which Hamlin collapsed was canceled, a move with major playoff implications for several teams. And the NFL is in uncharted territory. Joining me on the line now is Lindsay Jones, senior editor for The Ringer. Welcome back.

LINDSAY JONES: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So, Lindsay, I've been a football fan for a long time, and I have to tell you, I can't really remember anything quite like this as we're staring down the final weekend of the regular season. What do you know about how the league came to the decision to not resume that Monday night game and then to go ahead and move ahead with this weekend's schedule as planned?

JONES: Yeah. It was a really unique situation because the NFL never cancels games. And there wasn't a ton, I think, of real consideration of resuming this game. And a lot of that was logistical, and there just wasn't really time that they could get this game in. And they didn't want to ask the Bills players specifically to resume this game, you know, 24 or 48 hours later when their teammate was still in - you know, really in medical limbo.

SUMMERS: Damar Hamlin's injury, as you point out, was very serious. And it has reignited an ongoing conversation about how the NFL handles the health and well-being of its players. There have been, in the past, numerous rule changes designed to protect players, especially around concussions. From what - the people that you've talked to, do fans and players feel like this time around, the NFL's done a better job?

JONES: Yeah. I mean, the thing about this situation was that it's kind of out of the normal realm of football injuries. The conversations that I think have been most productive haven't been necessarily around how do we prevent this exact circumstance, a cardiac arrest, from happening in the future. It's about how do we care about our players more holistically and long term and how do we look at NFL players and these athletes more, you know, long term as humans and the type of care that they deserve for putting their bodies through such tremendous risk every week for our entertainment. And I think that is - you know, I think that might end up being the greater discussion that comes out of this. And this is the type of situation that could maybe, you know, ultimately benefit generations of football players to come that's independent of this one situation.

SUMMERS: Do you have a sense of how players are preparing for this Sunday and returning to the field, returning to the game?

JONES: Yeah. I mean, I think - you know, I think it would be a much different situation if we haven't been receiving such positive news about Damar Hamlin's status - the fact that he's now breathing on his own. He's able to speak. He's had - you know, he's no longer intubated. He's been able to FaceTime with his teammates. But, I mean, I guess, as I mentioned, you know, NFL players are so accustomed to compartmentalizing.

And I would say that one thing that has been encouraging over the last week is that there has been extensive discussion about mental health care and their emotional well-being. And players have been encouraged to seek therapy and to talk to professionals about this. And there hasn't been this expectation of just man up and brush it off and you're, you know, a gladiator. You can play through anything. This is not something that goes away after a week. This is going to be something that will stick with these players probably for the rest of their lives. And that - they're able to get the counseling and treatment that they might need to cope with that really scary experience that they had last week.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Lindsay Jones, senior editor for The Ringer. Lindsay, thank you so much.

JONES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.