The NFL postponed Monday night’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest. The league consulted a set of emergency rules when making the decision, and those same rules will play a key role in the game’s potential resumption.
After tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins during the first quarter, Hamlin stood up, walked a couple of steps and then abruptly collapsed to the field. He received immediate medical attention and was taken via ambulance to University of Cincinnati Medical Center. According to the NFL, Hamlin is in critical condition.
There was confusion as to whether the game, which stopped with the Bengals up 7-3, would proceed. Many of Bills and Bengals players appeared stunned and visibly upset; several knelt on the field. According to reports, game officials gave the teams five minutes to warm up with the understanding they would resume play. NFL executive VP Troy Vincent later disputed that account. Either way, after Bills coach Sean McDermott and Bengals coach Zac Taylor conferred, the players returned to their locker rooms and the game was suspended. The league later issued a statement saying the game was postponed, and the NFLPA concurred with the decision.
The power to postpone a game is found in Rule 17, titled “Emergencies, Unfair Acts,” in the NFL Rule Book. Under Article 4, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or a designate can deem it “impossible” to “continue a game due to an emergency” or decide that a game is “imminently threatened by any such emergency (e.g., severely inclement weather, lightning, flooding, power failure).” The listed examples of an emergency do not include a player suffering a life-threatening injury, though the examples are not presented as exclusive.
To that point, Article 4 supplies Goodell with the “authority to review the circumstances of each emergency and to adjust the following procedures in whatever manner the Commissioner deems appropriate.” However, Article 4 also states that the commissioner is “empowered to terminate the game” so long as, in the commissioner’s opinion, “it is reasonable to project that the resumption of an interrupted game would not change its ultimate result or adversely affect any other inter-team competitive issue.” Here, there were inter-team competitive issues in the form of playoff seeding.
It’s unclear if or when the Week 17 game will be completed. The NFL says the game will not be played this week but has not decided on whether it will be resumed at a later point. On Sunday, in the final week of the season, the Bills are set to play the 8-8 New England Patriots, who would earn a wild-card spot in the playoffs by beating the Bills. The 12-3 Bills have already clinched the AFC East, but whether they’ll receive a first-round bye has not yet been determined. The 11-4 Bengals, meanwhile, will take on the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens, who could still win the AFC North if the Bills beat the Bengals and the Ravens then beat the Bengals. The NFL playoffs are set to begin on Jan. 14.
Of course, the well-being of players on both teams is the paramount consideration going forward. As the league considers scheduling options, the business, logistical, legal and competition implications are all secondary.
With that important caveat, Article 9 of the NFL Rule Book concerns make-up dates. It instructs that if it is “impossible to schedule the game within two days after its original date,” the commissioner will try to schedule it on “a Tuesday of the next calendar week in which the two involved play other clubs.” The commissioner, however, is also allowed to consider “competitive inequities” in deciding.
Goodell could decide that the game will not resume and not count, and that all impacted teams will need to accept the accompanying playoff implications. As commissioner, Goodell has the inherent authority to ensure the best interests of the league. Under the league constitution he also has “full, complete and final jurisdiction to arbitrate” any dispute involving two or more teams or a dispute between a team and the league.
There have been previous examples of NFL games being rescheduled or canceled prior to kick off on account of severe weather, COVID-19 or labor disputes. Player injuries during games have not been a reason. In a 1978 preseason game between the Patriots and Oakland Raiders, Patriots wide receiver Daryl Stingley suffered a spinal cord injury that would paralyze him; the game continued.
The game also continued when Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis collapsed in the second quarter of a NBA playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets in 1993. Lewis died of a heart condition a few months later after collapsing for a second time. In 2018, G League player Zeke Upshaw collapsed on the court near the end of a game between the Grand Rapids Drive and the Long Island Nets. While the game was completed, Upshaw was rushed to the hospital and died two days later of a heart condition.
But postponement or cancellation of a game because of player injury is not unprecedented. After Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers collapsed during the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in 1990, he was rushed to the hospital where he passed away. The tournament was canceled.
(This story has been updated with additional information from the NFL.)