“The League Did Not Cancel the Game,” the Bills and Bengals Did

(Photo via Emilee Chinn/Associated Press)

There have been conflicting reports as to how the NFL wanted to proceed with the Week 17 matchup between the Bills and Bengals, during which Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field. Initially, as the nation watched on Monday Night Football, the broadcast mentioned the possibility of a short break before returning to play. The Paycor Stadium scoreboard displayed the following message an hour after Hamlin had fallen to the ground: “THE GAME IS TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED. PLEASE STAND BY FOR FURTHER INFORMATION.”[1]

Members of both clubs, team representatives, and one of the game’s referees met with NFL Chief Football Administrator Dawn Aponte to determine the course of action. ESPN reports that Aponte “was getting pressure,” from officials at the league’s command center, and that she was “not getting consistent and direct messaging that she deserved to receive,” according to one of the teams’ officials. This source continued, saying “whatever crazy nonsense she was getting, man, she held it. She held it strong.”

The power to postpone a game due to extraordinary circumstances, according to Rule 17-1-4 of the NFL rulebook, lies with Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell expressed in a memo the day following the game: “After speaking with both teams and NFLPA leadership, I decided to postpone last night’s game and have our focus remain on Damar and his family.” The team official who spoke to ESPN rejected this notion – “The league did not cancel the game. The Bills and the Bengals cancelled the game.”

NFL Executive Vice President Troy Vincent was reportedly heading this group of league officials applying “pressure” to Aponte, as well as overseeing the staff on the field in communication with various broadcast partners. This contradicts previous statements that Vincent made directly after last Monday’s game, in which he vehemently denied the reported five-minute warmup idea, and said that “frankly, it never crossed our mind to talk about warming up to resume play. That’s ridiculous. That’s insensitive, and that’s not a place that we should ever be in.” Vincent doubled down later in the week, reiterating that the league never intended to resume play. He even went as far to say that “at no time in my discussion in that hourlong frame did we ever even – myself – reference [or] give any directives about getting players ready to play.”

This goes against numerous firsthand accounts that mention the NFL discussing various return-to-play scenarios. Joe Burrow chimed in: “People were saying we were going to play again.” The situation lingered for over an hour, and many wondered why a decision had not yet been made. The ESPN piece notes that the NFL supposedly proposed that the Bills stay overnight in Cincinnati, with hopes of playing the following evening – an idea that was “almost instantly show down.” 

Joe Buck announced approximately 20 minutes after Hamlin’s collapse that “they’re going to try to continue to play this game.” The ESPN report mentioned that multiple firsthand sources relayed that a senior NFL rules analyst at the NFL command center laid out the plan to resume play to John Parry, ESPN’s MNF rules analyst.

Buck continued, saying “they’ve been given five minutes to quote-unquote get ready to go back to playing. That’s the word we get from the league and the word we get from down on the field, but nobody’s moving.” After the teams returned to their respective locker rooms, one of the referees announced to the stadium that the game had been “temporarily suspended.”

Parry himself even added, “Joe, just talked with New York in the command center. The situation has risen to a point where they want to give both teams, coaches, personnel, an opportunity to go back into the locker room, regroup themselves and so the game has been temporarily suspended to give them the opportunity – whatever they need at this point, teams are driving it.”

Buck mentioned four different times across 45 minutes that that the game would resume. He said that he was “surprised” to hear Vincent say that the information about the intention to resume did not come from the league command center. “If what I said on national TV with the eyes of the world watching was wrong in the view of the league, I would have been corrected – immediately. And I was not,” Buck said. He added, “I just know that we went with the information we were given by the league. I went on the air with a piece of information by John Parry through an open line of communication with the league that they gave us in real time.”

Parry sticks by his statements, but NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy claimed that the rules analyst in the command center “at no time said anything related to a five-minute warmup period to John Parry  . . . John is just plain wrong.” McCarthy went on: “We stand by Troy Vincent’s comments and strongly refute this characterization.”

Other accounts have trickled out; Josh Allen told NFL Network/ESPN’s Kyle Brandt that the players made the choice. In fact, Allen said that he and fellow captain, center Mitch Morse, were walking to the Bengals locker room to discuss not returning to the game, when they crossed paths with Bengals captains on their way to the Bills locker room to make the same proposition. [2]

The ESPN source did not mince words regarding his opinion of Vincent’s role in this matter: “The league screws this s— up because Troy Vincent screws this stuff up. That’s the wrong person in the wrong position at the absolute wrong time. . . He wants to be the hero, but he will never take accountability. That’s him to a T.”

The game was eventually suspended 66 minutes after Hamlin collapsed. Regardless of who is telling the truth in this he-said-he-said, according to a ProFootballTalk source, “I know Troy well enough to know this will cause freaking shock waves.”[3] 


References

[1] https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/35393227/how-bills-bengals-led-way-damar-hamlin-collapsed

[2] https://www.si.com/nfl/bengals/allbengals-insiders-plus/josh-allen-on-facing-the-bengals-again-this-season-its-gonna-be-a-little-bit-emotional

[3] https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2023/01/09/in-nfl-vs-espn-over-whether-bills-bengals-would-resume-an-espn-reporter-breaks-the-tie/

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3L at University at Buffalo School of Law; BSELS Co-Vice President

MBA in Marketing;

In pursuit of a career at the intersection of sports law and sports business, specifically in professional hockey.

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