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Transcript: NFL media conference call on January 3, 2023

A National Football League game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals ground to a halt on Monday after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a medical episode on the field during the first quarter.

The incident, described by team officials as a cardiac arrest, forced the suspension of the game and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” telecast, which was being simulcast on ABC stations and affiliates across the country.

Hamlin was taken to a trauma medical center in Cincinnati on Monday, where he was listed in critical condition.

At midnight on January 3 (Eastern Time, January 2 at 9 p.m. Pacific Time), several NFL executives held a conference call with national and local sports reporters on the decisions that were made in real-time following Hamlin’s medical incident. The following is a transcript made by The Desk from a recording of the conference call, which lasted around 15 minutes.

Jeff Miller, Executive Vice President of Communications, National Football League: Thanks, Brian. Thank you, everybody, for joining us at this late hour. Let me just start by saying we are thinking and solely about Damar Hamlin at this hour, and his family as well as his teammates, and continue to be in touch with medical providers.

As far as any updates on medical conditions, we’re not going to cover that on this call beyond the League’s statement. Similarly, if there are ultimately football questions about the game, those are also not to be discussion or answered at this point, just want to make sure I — that’s set for everybody on the call. Rather, through Troy Vincent and Dawn Aponte, who lead our football operations department, to talk a bit about some of the decision-making that was made in real time, given the very serious events on field today. Want to make sure that you all have that information directly from the people who made those decisions.

So again, Troy will cover off on as much as possible. Dawn, as well. And then I’ll answer a little bit about some of the medical coverage in terms of our emergency action plans. And then we’ll take a couple of questions.

So with that, and thank you for understanding our perspective on this and the sorts of questions we can answer, I’ll turn it to Troy for his statement.

Troy Vincent, Executive Vice President of Football Operations, National Football League: Well, thank you, Jeff. And thank you all for your patience. And if I can just add a little bit of color of — of kind of the situation and what was occurring real time, and how we were communicating, what we were communicating, and to whom we were communicating to.

We all saw a game stoppage occur approximately five minutes and 60 seconds in the first quarter. Damar Hamlin — once a player went down, and as Jeff referenced, the emergency action plan taken place, which we cover on a weekly basis with all 32 clubs; also 90 minutes, when we get the coaches and the medical staff together prior to each kickoff.

So the emergency action plan when it went into effect. Obviously we saw the coaches and players and frankly those that were tuned into the game, all traumatized. Myself, personally, just thinking through what is actually happening, what is taking place real time. And as emergency care was taking place on the field, I’m in communication with Sean, who was the referee tonight, and making sure that he was in constant communication with both Coach Taylor, as well as Coach McDermott.

And what was most important tonight was, it wasn’t about proceeding with the game. Frankly, the aspect never crossed my mind, never cross our mind internally. We asked that Shawn communicate with both Taylor and Coach McDermott about, you know, getting the players together, and just frankly, getting a pulse of where they were, at that particular time.

And as medical care continue to proceed, we asked that it’s appropriate that both — both clubs just returned to the locker room. Just to, just to make sure that everyone was okay, on what we saw.

Throughout that time. Obviously, I’m in constant communication with the Commissioner, constant communication with the medical staff, which was most important. Nothing else mattered, other than the care of Damar. I’m in constant conversation with the Commissioner, I’m in constant conversation with both head coaches, are getting all real time. And frankly, that was a time that you saw where we were just really trying to make sure that we were doing right by Damar.

The players and the coach — tonight we had a place where, you know, both coaches were understandable about where we were. Neither coach, frankly, were talking about resuming play. The players weren’t. And again, medical staff, player’s union, union official, real-time broadcast partners — just trying to make sure that we were keeping everyone abreast of in place. And what we were thinking prior to the decision being made to at this particular juncture. Both the head coaches came out on the phone with myself, communicated with the commissioner that the players [unintelligible]. We just felt like, collectively, that it was time to communicate with the general public, those that were in a stadium, that we were going to postpone play.

And that was just kind of walking you through what was happening real time, who we were communicating with — myself, personally. It was really about Damar, and making sure that — look, I’ve never seen anything like it, since I’ve been playing. So immediately my player had went on. And how do you resume play after you’ve seen such a traumatic event occur in front of you real time? And that’s the way we were thinking about it, Commissioner and I and others.

[Unintelligible] and then come back, and we’ll make a decision as to what’s in the best interest for Mr. Hamlin and with all those who have witnessed what we saw.

Dawn, anything that you would add? I’ll turn it over — and Dawn, if not Dawn, our man on site, I would just say, your communication with the coaches, medical staff, everyone involved. You couldn’t ask for a better plan of action, a cadence, in real time with a lot of things going on. And Dawn was there to be able to communicate, be that liaison for both clubs, as club ownership as well. I failed to acknowledge both Katie Blackburn, Terry, on site, being updated by the minute around what was actually taking place, and what we can do to support both teams and players and coaches.

Miller: Dawn, do you want to take us back?

Dawn Aponte, Chief Football Administrative Officer, National Football League: No, I think this —  mostly reiterating again — being on site, the key focus was no doubt on the health of the player. I mean, medical advice guided our decisions. We remained in constant communication, as Troy said, with both teams, with medical personnel, with the game officials, with ownership. And we made decisions that we believed to be in the best interest of Damar’s status and the state of both teams, players and staff.

You know, there couldn’t have been more collaboration throughout this process by all parties. Bengals ownership is still on site at the stadium, everyone is still, you know, doing whatever the Bills staff needs in support. So we will continue to do that.

Miller: A little bit of background on the medical perspective — again, no updates on this position.

But as many of you know, there is an emergency action plan in each and every one of our stadiums that’s rehearsed every year. And that the medical professionals know what to do if there is a very serious medical on field like there was tonight. We do have an ambulance that each and every stadium, there is an airway management physician and every stadium should there be a need to help with airway management for an individual.

Those medical staffs collaborate calling for the ambulance, calling for all of the medical support necessary, to effectuate the medical plan at their discretion. That is their decision to call, to make. [unintelligible] On the emergency action plan, there is a level one trauma center in each and every one of our league cities that’s connected to the emergency action plan. And that’s where the ambulance too Mr. Hamlin, that’s where he is now getting the best possible care.

From an emergency action plan perspective, things worked as designed. There was terrific collaboration both with the team medical staff and independent medical providers who are there if something happened. So, [unintelligible], Troy, Dawn, were talking to the coaches and to all the many others, talked about everything there was stopping until, well, while the priority was given to the players help throughout the course of those events on the field.

So I think that that’s sort of the background on what happened in real time from the people who were making those decisions. And Brian, I think if we want to take a question or two, we could probably do that.

Call operator: Once again, this is an open line. If you’re not going to ask a question, please put yourself on mute. We’re going to just take a couple questions here. We know more information will become available over the next few days. Let’s start with a couple of people from Buffalo. Buffalo?

Reporter: What went in the decision to give the teams five minutes to warm up as though the game were to continue?

Vincent: This is troy. I’ll take that. I’m not sure where where that came from. Frankly, there was no time period for the players to get warmed up. Frankly, the only the only thing that we asked was that Shawn communicate with both head coaches to make sure they had the proper time inside the locker room to discuss what they felt like was best.

So, I’m not sure where that where that came from — five minutes warm up, never never was never crossed my mind personally. And I was the one — I’m saying I’m, not to be selfish, but the one that was communicating with the Commissioner. We never frankly —  it never crossed our mind that, to talk about warming up, to resume play. That’s, that’s ridiculous. That’s insensitive. And that’s not a place that, that we should ever be.

Call operator: Next question you picking identify yourself by name and outlet?

Reporter: Hi, this is Jay Skurski with the Buffalo News. Can you update us as to whether the Bills plan to return to Buffalo this evening or stay in Cincinnati?

Vincent I can — and, Dawn, obviously, you’re on site. We were notified that the team would be returning back to Buffalo. I believe it was right before midnight. There were a handful of players that wanted to stay back with their teammate. And then there was others that have planned to want to return back Orchard Park.

Miller: Next question?

[crosstalk on line]

Reporter: John Wawrow with the Associated Press. How do you — what, what is the process of them moving forward in regards to this game this week, and just, what the plan might be for this game?

Miller: John, this is Jeff. That’s not the consideration right now. Our concern is for the player and his well-being at the appropriate time. I’m sure that we’ll have a conversation around the next steps regarding the game.

[crosstalk on line]

Reporter: Kelsey Conway with the Cincinnati Enquirer. I was just wondering if you guys could follow up a little bit more detail in the process of how you guys communicate? Is it on the field through the headset, or is on the phone? Like, how do you guys communicate with the referees? How does the communication go down? And just wanted to clarify, there was no decision made when the players left to go to the locker room, there was no decision made yet on if the game was going to be canceled, it was then decided after the team talks in the locker room?

Vincent: Yes, ma’am, yes Kelsey. And I will just say if you can recall, when the broadcast showed when he had Shawn, the referee in the white hat. If you saw, there were many occasions where he had — either he was talking to the coaches individually, and then there was a time where he was talking to them both collectively. And at that particular time he had asked if they would like to go to their own to their respective locker rooms to discuss and getting a player — it was obvious listening in –.

Obviously we are communicating with Shawn in real time. He has a mic in his in his ear. And we are asking and hearing him communicate with both head coaches, about just going back to the locker room, taking as much time as they need to discuss the state of where their locker room is.

And again, as we communicate with medical staff, constant communication, obviously the Commissioner, but our pulse was — and you can obviously, Shawn and both Coach Taylor, we were talking real time, if you want to confirm with them. And that was, as they were coming in and out their locker room.

It was fluid and things were changing by the minute. Emotions you can imagine, both locker rooms. And I commend both of those coaches tough situation to go back in and look at 53 men in the locker room and ask — not that they asked — but to just to try to calm people down.

It was obvious on the phone with them that the emotions were extremely high. It was a very volatile situation. And I thought the coaches ,they led tonight, they led their locker room. So that was the communication, it was with the white hat on the field. And as the coaches went back to their locker room, no more communication with the with the referee. It was direct communication with both coaches and their communication staff.

Call operator: Let’s take one more question.

Reporter: Mike Petraglia from CLNS Media here in Cincinnati. Troy, did you say you were in contact throughout with the Commissioner?

Vincent: Yes, sir.

Reporter: And what was your What was his reaction? And how was he kept abreast? Was he actually watching in real time? If you could just bring us up to date on that?

Vincent: Yes, sir. Watching watching the real time in our lives, we had an open line of communication, where we were talking again, it was a lot of people on the open open line. Didn’t want anybody to drop off. But again, we were, we were speaking, we were speaking frequently.

And it was — Charlie, it was — you can — obviously, he was devastated too. This was an occurrence that we just haven’t seen in our time. And the concern was, you just kept asking, what is the latest update? What’s the latest update on Damar? What’s the latest update on Damar? And to making sure that we were assist in the clubs properly — that’s both, both locker rooms.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).