ESPN and “MNF” used proper tone on Damar Hamlin’s situation
The medics and first responders who resuscitated Buffalo Bill’s safety Damar Hamlin are the heroes. The doctors and staff at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center are the heroes.
Journalists are not heroes. But on a night like Monday, when Hamlin collapsed at 5:58 in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals — he’s currently in critical condition and sedated from cardiac arrest, the Bills said — ESPN had the pivotal role, the main source to be available for updates while the game was broadcast.
The network’s reporters and broadcasters delivered in an unprecedented situation. There’s little chance ESPN’s pre-game production meetings covered a potential emergency like this in any detail.
Almost immediately, the network gave viewers an idea of the gravity of what was happening by showing the traumatized faces of the Bills and Bengals players. The zoomed out view offered a degree of privacy during a public tragedy. ESPN made the right choice by not repeating Hamlin’s hit and subsequent collapse multiple times.
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Part-time reporter Lisa Salters shone from this point on. She offered key updates that medical staff were “working” on Hamlin. This was no ordinary injury, she clarified. Play-by-play announcer Joe Buck said CPR was being administered. At the moment, the information was shocking and revealing.
During the 65 minutes between Hamlin’s collapse and the NFL’s postponement, ESPN cut between its studio show — Suzy Kolber (host), Booger McFarland (analyst) and Adam Schefter (insider) — and the game coverage of Buck, Troy Aikman and Salters. Buck himself often shared key information, including the controversial statement that teams were given five minutes to warm up before play would resume. That sparked a backlash on social media, but the league later said on a conference call it didn’t know where that timeframe came from.
The lack of available updates left coverage stagnant at times, but ESPN couldn’t just throw in a “30 for 30” and tell everyone to check back later. They could have brought in more voices during the studio segment.
McFarland immediately insisted the NFL shouldn’t push the game and was able to offer a glimpse of the emotions the players must have experienced. Salters excelled again, this time with updates from the Paycor Stadium tunnels on meetings between the Bills and Bengals and how the NFL would proceed.
After the game was suspended, ESPN went to SportsCenter late-night host Scott Van Pelt. Perhaps the greatest gift of “SVP” is that he is a host who gets it. His tone never wavered and captured the moment. His pastoral work ensured that Hamlin’s health was in the spotlight and responded to that in the league and the sporting world.
Van Pelt was joined by analyst Ryan Clark, who detailed his own personal experience with sickle cell disease, which nearly killed him in 2007. Clark emphasized that Hamlin is the person — a 24-year-old living the dream that has turned into a “nightmare,” Clark said. It was a concise and powerful comment.
The doctors and rescue workers should be commended for their efforts to date to keep Damar Hamlin alive. What ESPN had to accomplish pales in comparison. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.