‘You Get to See Violence’

The radio host Garrett Bush discusses the country’s tortured relationship with football, and what the NFL could do to treat players better.

An illustration featuring a photo of a player holding a sign that reads: "Pray for Damar"
The Atlantic; Bryan M. Bennett / Getty

The day after Damar Hamlin collapsed during what began as a normal game on Monday Night Football, the radio host Garrett Bush was frustrated.

Bush had watched as other commentators offered “thoughts and prayers” and speculated about when the game would be rescheduled. But all that seemed inconsequential to Bush. Here was a young man, he thought, who may never play football again. Beyond Hamlin’s health and well-being, there were more quotidian reasons to worry too: Hamlin hadn’t played long enough for his NFL pension to vest, and Bush wondered about his financial future—whether, should he be permanently disabled, Hamlin’s family would be able to afford a life’s worth of medical bills.

In a six-minute clip that has now been viewed more than 8 million times on Twitter alone, Bush rails against the deal players get in NFL contracts. “You know what the NFL will tell you?” he says. “‘We’ll look out for the people like him.’ No you won’t.”

In the video, Bush admits to being “pissed off” as he talks about previously announced cuts to former players’ disability pay during collective bargaining and the medical-review board that the NFL could use to deny disability benefits even if Social Security deems a player permanently disabled.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association declined to comment on Bush’s comments, according to the Financial Times. The following week, the NFL announced that it would reportedly honor Hamlin’s contract through the end of the season, rather than slicing his pay because of his absence from the field. Hamlin was also discharged from the hospital. I caught up with Bush to discuss the world’s reaction to his comments—and why he thinks it’ll take a strike for players to get the leverage needed for fairer contracts.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Just watching that clip—you’re visibly emotional. Why does this topic elicit such an emotional reaction for you?

Garrett Bush: I’m sort of conflicted. On one hand, football has done a lot for me as an individual. I played football in high school and in college. I earned a full football scholarship at Ohio University. I understand what good can come out of football. Some of my best friends in the world are people that I played with. And football teaches you a lot of things. It teaches you about time management and that sometimes life isn’t fair—that if you work really hard, you’re not guaranteed to win.

But also, on the other hand, I’ve had 17, 18 surgeries. I’ve had neck surgery three times. I’ve had back surgery. I have a pain-management doctor I go to now. I know exactly what it is to be injured.

The business of football is different from the sport. And the business is very lucrative for ownership. I don’t feel like those who profit from football do a good enough job of taking care of their players, especially when they have catastrophic injuries.

Nyce: Did it surprise you, how big the reaction to your comments was?

Bush: Yeah, it’s still kind of shocking, to be truthful. I have people calling me from my childhood. One of my classmates who lives in South Africa was like, “Oh my goodness, you’re trending in South Africa.” I’m like, Wow, that’s crazy.

I was surprised by it because I thought that everyone knew these things. I thought everyone knew that football players don’t get guaranteed contracts and that you’re not eligible for a pension plan unless you play a certain amount of years. And that, even if you do get disability, you have to go before a council in order to continue to show that you are permanently disabled.

It just goes to show you the conflicted nature of the game. Football by far is the most impactful game and one of the biggest TV and entertainment enterprises in this country. And yet, we know that football is dangerous. We kind of don’t want to know how dangerous, because it’s our guilty pleasure. We know that the players make a lot of money—more than we make—so it’s kind of like, Eh, well they’re rich. We rationalize a lot of it. And when you do that, you just push some of these issues off of the table.

Nyce: How do you think these contracts will get fixed? Do you think the responsibility is entirely on the owners?

Bush: No, no. The NFL Players Association bears a lot of blame. The Players Association does not do a good enough job of representing its players. They incentivize the players to go against their own best interests. Some of the things that they vote on are these collective-bargaining agreements that impact veterans and people who are already retired. And those veterans don’t have an opportunity to vote on their own future. So you can be disabled; you can be retired; you could have CTE. But the youngest players vote on what happens to your already settled pensions, your already settled disability payments.

Also, if you’re a young player, there’s no guaranteed contracts. So thoughts and prayers are really cool, but Damar doesn’t get paid unless he’s playing in the game. And due to him being injured, he’s not guaranteed his full salary.

Nyce: What did you make of the news that the Bills are going to honor Hamlin’s contract through the end of the year? Do you think that’s enough?

Bush: No. They are very intelligent. The Bills and the NFL were in a tough spot. I’m so happy Hamlin’s out of the hospital now, and I’m glad he’s back in Buffalo and getting better. Yes, it’s a nice gesture to pay for this year. I believe that he still is not guaranteed a contract next year. And that deal is something unique to him.

You got thousands of players that something like this could happen to at any time, and the league needs to figure out a way to do something on behalf of all the players, so that they can rest assured that if something happens to them, their families can take care of their medical costs or still be able to put their kids through college.

Nyce: How do we fix it for everyone?

Bush: Well, this is the catch-22. The only way the NFL will ever bend to a point is through litigation. We learned that with CTE and the concussion lawsuits. Also, public sentiment is key, people saying, “Listen, this is not right.”

Baseball’s contracts are guaranteed. Basketball’s contracts are guaranteed. Hockey’s contracts, guaranteed. The NFL is the most lucrative revenue-wise. They’re getting billions in television rights. And they still don’t even offer guaranteed contracts for the players who are putting themselves on the line.

I think you start to see what public sentiment can do. After my comments, all of a sudden, the Bills and the NFL make an announcement that is unprecedented.

Until the players who have voting capabilities say they’re going to strike for better benefits—and threaten to hold out for a whole entire year—this is going to continue. Because at this point, the league has all of the leverage. The Players Association has given them so much. It is going to take a strike to get some of this leverage back.

Nyce: What would you say to a critic who argues that these players knew the risk when they signed up?

Bush: Well, I would argue that the players really don’t know all of the risks when they sign up. CTE is a thing that the league denied for 20 years.

Decades ago, in the Midwest, many people that worked in coal factories got black lungs or developed certain cancers or respiratory diseases. And we didn’t know about those until scientists looked at it.

Wherever there’s a job, as an employer, it’s your job to take care of your employees, whether that’s physically, mentally, or socially. There’s a certain standard that you need to meet. There were times when steel mills didn’t have women’s restrooms. So someone would say, “That’s not right. You have to have women’s restrooms.” “Hey, you have to be wheelchair-accessible for those who have disabilities.” “You can’t have open sexual harassment in the workplace.”

So to those people who say openly, “Well, they know what they’re getting into,” you can give case-by-case examples of the ways society has advanced. And when you get new knowledge and information that suggests that you should protect people at a higher level, I think it’d be dumb to say, “We’re just going to continue to do it because it’s something we’ve always done.”

Nyce: So I’m going to admit that I’m not a person who watches football. That night, when the accident happened, my initial instinct was, Why do we do this? I know you said you’ve been feeling a little conflicted about football more generally. I was wondering: Why should we continue to play football if the risk is so high?

Bush: That’s a very great question.

I think people live vicariously through football players and athletes. I still don’t understand fandom that much. Like, why am I so enthralled in watching the Cleveland Browns, when it gives me nothing back? I think it just comes down to competition and tribalism. In our society, in the United States, we have to pick a side. Are you going to be a Republican or a Democrat? Do you like Walmart or Target? Is it Batman or Superman? And I think sports are one of the last and best places where you can do that at a very high level. You get to see violence; you get to see drama; you get to be mad at the refs.

The NFL is really great at narratives. When Damar comes back and plays, think about how many tickets they’ll sell. Place’ll be sold out. Think about how many jerseys they’ll sell. It’s a very strong hook.