In a horrible moment, as the nation watched, ESPN utterly failed
Why did the alleged worldwide leader in sports fail to practice journalism at a moment it was required?
My daughter called to tell me what was happening in Cincinnati Monday night, Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin making a tackle, standing, then collapsing, then receiving CPR on the field.
I waited a couple minutes to turn to it because I was positive I didn’t want to see a replay and if they were showing it I figured they’d quit showing quickly.
When I got to it Bengals coach Zac Taylor — a Norman High graduate, by the way, where he was a pretty fair quarterback for the prolific Butch Peters — and Bills coach Sean McDermott had just walked to meet on the field a second time.
Soon, they’d walk off the field with their teams, and here was my first trying-to-put-it-all-together thought:
If they get a positive report that Hamlin’s stable, breathing on his own, out of imminent danger, they could rejoin the game even 60 to 90 minutes later.
Yet, as time dragged, I soon moved to they’re not playing even with fabulous news, the players being in no emotional state to return to competition.
I had no sense of what the NFL might do.
If Hamlin emerged out of danger before everybody left the stadium, I thought they might come back Tuesday or today to finish. But now I’m struggling to see how they get the game in at all, which leaves me struggling to understand how they’ll draw up the playoffs, because the one thing I really can’t see the NFL doing is postponing the Super Bowl.
Could they move the playoffs back and make us suffer through but one week of Super Bowl hype?
Also hard to imagine.
Anyway, unthinkable awfulness strikes and the mind races … to unbearable sympathy and empathy, to curiosity about what’s not known, to distraction in the form of how-are-they-going-to-get-this-game-in-eventually?
That, however, is the viewers and none of it offers a strong excuse nor explanation for ESPN’s handling of the moment prior to handing off coverage to Scott Van Pelt’s late night SportsCenter.
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In the stadium, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were calling the game. In the studio, Suzy Kolber, Adam Schefter and Booger McFarland were offering a majority of the coverage once the teams left the field.
All but McFarland failed.
Kolber appeared too shaken to say much of anything. McFarland, the absolute non-journalist of the trio, was the only one not at a loss for words, speaking from the heart, being willing to call it a life-or-death situation, offering perspective.
Schefter was embarrassing.
Well known to have more NFL sources than anybody on earth and he couldn’t add one thing to the coverage beyond lament and a regrettable tone?
He couldn’t even hit his Twitter feed and read some of the heartfelt reactions of NFL players watching? For that matter, no off-camera producers could do that either, maybe come up with a graphic or something?
I get it.
We’re all shocked. We’re all heartbroken.
Doing anything other than hating the moment and what’s happened to a promising second-year safety may appear disrespectful.
But it’s not.
There’s a job to do.
The world is watching, it’s a communal moment, but until ESPN exited game coverage entirely, it found no role to play, not even as journalists, as Kolber and Schefter purport to be and Buck, at least, ought to.
As afraid for Hamlin’s welfare as everybody was, they appeared equally afraid of uttering anything that might be helpful to the audience.
What nobody beyond sideline reporter Lisa Salters, who’s built for such moments, was get caught practicing journalism.
From perspective, to new reporting, to educating via experts, medical and otherwise, like maybe Hamlin’s position coach at Pittsburgh where he starred in college, coming on the air.
None of which happened.
And because none of it happened, commercials ruled the day.
ESPN couldn’t get to them fast enough, after which it would return to the studio, the trio would again explain how awful it was, how the game should not restart, how we’re all witnessing something shocking and previously unseen — though I immediately thought of Oakland’s Jack Tatum paralyzing New England’s Darrell Stingley in a preseason game on Aug. 12, 1978 — how there just aren’t any words to say.
But weren’t there?
CPR is administered when somebody isn’t breathing or when their heart’s not functioning properly. Could a heart doctor not have come on the air and take us through what they saw; what had already been confirmed to have happened; what new knowledge, if it could be known, would tell us more about what happened to Hamlin?
Was no personal history of Hamlin available, perhaps insights or thoughts from former teammates and coaches from high school forward? Could anybody have even checked such folks’ Twitter accounts?
For crying out loud, was Buffalo News Bills beat writer Jay Skurski not available for a minute or two, five or 10? I’m sure he was busy, but likely available, working away in the press box.
ESPN would like us to believe it covers the NFL and it does, but Monday night in Cincinnati it didn’t. Monday night in Cincinnati it broadcast the NFL like a partner, failing to cover it like a subject.
Like who’s calling the shots anyway?
It’s kind of extraordinary.
A president is shot, shock is registered, but journalism doesn’t rest.
The Capitol is ransacked by insurrectionists, nobody can believe it, a populace is disgusted wondering what’s happened to its country, but all hands are on deck looking for answers.
An athlete goes down, a nation is watching and the alleged worldwide leader in sports, with beat men and women covering almost every team in every major sport, with astronomically paid commentators in the booth and unthinkably great resources back at headquarters, has nothing to tell us?
None of Hamlin’s teammates or former teammates. No history of similar moments in football or other sports and, yes, there are a few.
Nobody even to tell us the story of Damar Hamlin, the 212th pick in the 2021 draft, but already a starter for one of the league’s best teams.
Could old comrade Bob Ley, who oozes perspective and knows his history, not be called?
ESPN is the largest arbiter of sports in this country and perhaps the world. Its power to shape narratives, right or wrong, is unmatched. It dictates which sports we consume, how we consume them and how much we get to know about them.
But with a chance to prove it’s very much a news organization, too, as a scary and horrible incident occurred and in the near aftermath of its occurrence, it proved to be an authority on not much at all.