January 11, 2023

When sports becomes news

by Mitchell Hadley and Marc Ryan

Many of you probably witnessed the horror scene in Cincinnati on January 2, when Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during the game and had his heartbeat revived on the field. My suspicion is that most people watching feared Hamlin was dead, which wasn't far from the truth; at the very least, he was taken to the hospital in grave condition, with little reason to feel particularly optimistic about his chances. (Remarkably, earlier today—just over a week later—he was released from the hospital.)

Today, we've got a unique joint byline on the coverage of this breaking news event. My friend, former journalist Marc Ryan, was watching the game live and saw it unfold as it happened. I didn't have the game on but saw the breaking news online and switched over immediately. In discussing the story afterwards, we found that we had independently had similar thoughts about how ESPN covered the story: where it got things right, and where the coverage was lacking. Most important, perhaps, was ESPN's inability, intentional or not, to place the unfolding story in a historical context. We decided that you might find our observations and conclusions informative, for the intent is to provide constructive advice for the future, rather than to simply offer criticism. 

So here you go.

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It is the obligation and responsibility of the host team of an NFL game to have an Emergency Action Plan, a plan that has the endorsement of the league and the Players Association and has been approved by medical emergency experts. Further, that host team must provide two life support ambulances and coordinate with a Level 1 trauma center should the absolute worst happen. 

On Monday night, the absolute worst happened. Cincinnati was ready, ESPN was not.

Based on our experiences, not only television news but as a television historian who's reviewed decades of breaking news stories, we recognize the importance of institutional memory; that is, being able to put a story into historical context and perspective. When Marc worked at ESPN and SportsChannel, there was a time or two when expertise on goaltending, differences in college football and NFL rules, or the infield fly rule didn’t matter. It was time to think outside of sports. 

One such instance was in 1985, when over a dozen players testified in court about drug use in Major League Baseball. Collectively, this was called “The Pittsburgh Drug Trials.” In addition to arranging for personnel/equipment/facilities for live reports, it was necessary to find the right people to interview about why this was taking place in Pittsburgh, was this a city or state or federal case. Admittedly, this was scheduled, there was time to make calls and gather information and contacts.

A sports journalist must also be prepared for an instance when a game might turn into a news event. An extreme but perfect example was the Loma Prieta earthquake—in plain English, that’s the earthquake that struck during ABC’s pregame show for Game 3 of the 1989 World Series in San Francisco. Al Michaels provided his audience with great reporting, levelheaded delivery, and outstanding practical knowledge. Earlier in his career, he was an announcer for the Giants for three years; when a crisis hit, he provided insight as only a resident could. 

In our opinion, the overriding impression coming from ESPN's coverage of the Hamlin story is that of a network whose on-air talent lacked the necessary information, the historical precedent, to provide the viewer with the information required to give a complete picture of the story. And whether through attrition in the form of layoffs or simply a lack of knowledge, there was nobody talking in their earpieces, providing them with that information.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, as the severity of Hamlin's situation became evident, play-by-play announcer Joe Buck and analyst Troy Aikman repeated that this was an unprecedented circumstance. Those assertions were, in fact, in error. When ESPN cut away from Cincinnati to return to the set, Suzy Kolber, Adam Schefter and Booger McFarland expressed concern and relayed the gravity of the moment. As did Buck and Aikman, the studio hosts spoke as if this was a first-ever event during an NFL game. While they talked, both of us thought back to a day in 1971; for us, the Damar Hamlin crisis had the feel of déjà vu.

On October 24, 1971, Chuck Hughes, a reserve receiver for the Detroit Lions, collapsed and died in the waning minutes of the game against the Chicago Bears. The game was broadcast regionally (the national game for CBS that Sunday was 5-0 Washington at 4-1 Kansas City) and, as you would guess, fewer cameras were used on NFL telecasts back then; highlight shows were later in the week and produced by NFL Films. (Yahoo! posted an excellent recap of that story late that January 2.)

Both of us have the advantage of being old (Marc was 13 when it happened, Mitchell was 11), so this isn't our first rodeo. For days after Hughes's death, the story was on the 6 o'clock news and ran in the daily newspapers; more than a week later, it was in Sports Illustrated. The sports media landscape was nowhere near as pervasive as it is today, but there was ample coverage for the time.

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With the Hughes precedent in mind, are you telling us that in 35 years of televising NFL games, ESPN has never considered such a situation? There should be an internally generated handbook in every football show studio, TV truck, and broadcast booth for the situation that everyone hopes, just as with that familiar wall fixture "Break Glass in Case of Emergency," no one ever needs. It is what the on-air talent needs to rely on when a sporting event turns into a breaking news story.

There have been similar occurrences in other sports, most recently the collapse of soccer player Christian Eriksen in 2021; he also required heart resuscitation on the field, while players from both teams wept on the sidelines. It was, for those of us who saw it, eerily similar to what happened to Damar Hamlin. (Eriksen is back playing today; we can hope that the same for Hamlin.) Such a handbook would be useful for what to do if there's a Marc Bouniconti/Dennis Byrd/Mike Utley or Chuck Hughes situation.

It's understandable that an organization as image conscious as the NFL (because, let's be honest, when it comes to televising the NFL, it's the league that calls the shots) would be hesitant to call viewers' attention to a similar situation that resulted in the death or paralysis of a player. And yet, treating this as a news story requires background and perspective. In the moments after President Kennedy was shot, when it was not yet known that the wounds were fatal, the delicacy of the situation did not stop broadcasters from reminding viewers and listeners that three past presidents of the United States had been assassinated. This wasn't some kind of sensationalist speculation; it was history

Where was that historical perspective on Monday night? Kolber vowed she and her studio mates would not speculate, which is appropriate; it's bad enough when doctors speculate on the medical condition of people who aren't their patients, let alone sportscasters. But that's the point: the job of a journalist is to know their beat, and the Hughes precedent certainly falls under the category of the football reporter's beat. Meanwhile, McFarland thoughtfully promised ESPN would think of something to televise if the game wasn’t resumed. Neither Kolber nor McFarland can be blamed for being shaken, but they offered little more than "this is tragic, back after commercial." Kolber and Shefter are ESPN’s most touted experts. Shefter could have been taken off camera and used his contacts for information, not guessing.

As the minutes stretched into hours, there was also a disturbing lack of information, leaving viewers to expect the worst. Naturally, social media was inundated with rumor. However, it was also filled with prayers and good wishes from friends, fellow players, and total strangers. Additionally, there was an update—the first of any kind—from Jordon Rooney, Hamlin's business manager and friend. While his identity needed to be confirmed (it was, fairly quickly), this didn't make it to ESPN's coverage. Was nobody monitoring social media?

ESPN has an extensive roster of former players and coaches for ersatz comedy bits on Sunday pregame shows; they could have reached out, either on the phone or Skype. Not to speculate, but Rex Ryan can speak to what a coach does, Dan Orlovsky can speak to how players react. And once the NFL announced the game would not be resumed, ex-player Ryan Clark and Scott Van Pelt took over, each handling the story with respect and without speculation. They covered it, for the most part, as what it was: a news story. But with commercials.

Our last observation concerns multiple breaks where commercials ran from industrial products from General Electric, fast food spots, NFL playoff games on ESPN and regrettably, tone deaf ads for gambling options and NFL announcements of caution to gamble wisely. TV Newsroom 101 is elementary: if a jet aircraft goes down, pull all airliner ads.

With the worst possible scenario playing out on the field and in the hospital, the sensitivity that ESPN showed by not speculating on Hamlin's condition could have been extended to commercial content. Again, the commercials were probably meant for insertion in the game itself. But, as we've said, this was no longer a game, but a news event. If ESPN is serious about being the worldwide leader, it could do to establish best practices for what happens when a sporting event becomes a news story. Before the next time it happens. TV  

Marc Ryan is a former Assignment Producer working at CNN, WPIX, ESPN, SportsChannel and West Virginia Public Television, and retired Adjunct Professor at Keene State College, where he taught classes in Mass Communication, Sports Media and Communications. He is also the author of three books, including Three Shots were fired: JFK’s Assassination and TV’s First Global Story and From Berlin to Beijing and London: A look at TV and the Olympics. My interviews with him can be found here and here.

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