As soon as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin tumbled to the turf during Monday night’s game, everything changed for the ESPN crew assigned to cover the action between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals.
On what appeared to be a clean and routine tackle, the 24-year-old Bills defensive player suffered what would later be described as cardiac arrest. It was a terrifying scene. As Hamlin lay motionless, we were told that emergency medical professionals were administering CPR. Within a half-hour, an ambulance took him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he was put into medically induced coma for several days.
Thus began what will likely go down as one of the most intense episodes in the careers of the ESPN announcers that night. There is no manual telling broadcasters what to say and how to react during such a crisis. They are flying blind.
Yes, pro football is a violent game played by big men in peak physical condition. But no one ever expects to encounter a life and death crisis occurring in an eyelash.
During their pre-game meetings, ESPN’s professionals surely discussed the high-powered offenses of the Bills and the Bengals, and the playoff implications of this important regular-season game where both were poised to fight for a number one seed and a first round bye in the playoffs. Heading in, both team had the potential to reach the Super Bowl in February.
Nowhere did it say in the announcers’ briefing materials, “Turn to page 37 for instructions about how to respond – professionally, empathetically and factually – when a player on the field goes into cardiac arrest.”
Yet, play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, his long-time analyst sidekick Troy Aikman in the booth and Lisa Salters on the sidelines had that stressful task. In an instant, they were transformed from football announcers to quasi-medical experts. We counted on them to do what journalists are trained to do: tell us everything, and right away.
It was perhaps veteran announcer Ryan Clark, himself a former NFL player who suffered an injury that knocked him out for a whole year once in his career, who got it most right. He took over from the game analysts during what should have been the post-game chat.
“It’s about a young man at 24 years old that was living his dream,” Clark told viewers. “That, a few hours ago was getting ready to play the biggest game of his career.”
This Isn’t Just Football
“When Damar Hamlin falls to the turf and when you see the medical staff rush to the field, and both teams are on the field, you realize this isn’t normal,” Clark said. “You realize this isn’t just football.”
There was potential huge downside for the ESPN team. If they gave an incorrect diagnosis, they would be blamed forever as irresponsible and foolish. In this social-media age, the pressure is even greater than before for reporters to break news and be first with a major scoop.
During the hours where Hamlin’s fate was still not known, ESPN, which is normally only too happy to run the spectacular and outrageous, ran zero replays of the collision that brought Hamlin down. While the players gathered around Hamlin, effectively blocking viewers, Clark said he could tell from one feed that was not shown on air that Hamlin was being administered CPR. That clearly meant the Bills trainer was heroically trying to jump start Hamlin’s heart which wasn’t working for several agonizing minutes while medical personnel worked feverishly to revive him. Players on both sides did not try to hide their tears.
There have been cases when sports journalists had to become news reporters during a crisis. At the Summer Olympics in 1972 in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian militants and ABC announcers Jim McKay and Howard Cosell immediately responded professionally and covered the event as a news tragedy.
During the 1989 World Series a major earthquake forced the action between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s to stop for several days. ABC announcer Al Michaels gallantly related to the viewers what was going on.
What They Got Right
The most important accomplishment of Buck, Aikman, Salters, Ryan and other colleagues in the television studio was simply not messing up. At no time did anyone say something grossly incorrect or reckless or inhumane.
None of the announcers worried about getting the big a scoop. Instead, they remained respectful of the injured player, the other shocked players on the Bills and Bengals sidelines, the institution of the National Football League and, dare we say it, the integrity of journalism.
The most valuable lesson that I learned as a journalism student was: When in doubt, leave it out. Don’t be careless or reckless. Don’t try to make history. Get it right. Being first is important, of course, but it is more essential to be correct.
Considering the whirl of events – the player gets injured, the medics perform CPR, the ambulance springs into action – the ESPN crew distinguished itself.
Their performance could serve as a model for journalism students who are studying how to comport themselves in an emergency. Whether we are watching in shock on 9/11 or witnessing a natural disaster, television offers us a glimpse of a crisis. But beyond the pictures, it’s up to the journalists to fill in the gaps for us at home. It is extremely difficult, stressful work.
There will of course be repercussions down the road for football and the NFL in particular. Ryan Clark on the night of the event noted: “Tonight we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly. A side of football that no one ever wants to see or never wants to admit exists.” By Jan 5, a front page story in the New York Times on was headlined: “Football Fans Forced to Weigh Their Love for a Violent Sport.”
“When Damar Hamlin falls to the turf and when you see the medical staff rush to the field, and both teams are on the field, you realize this isn’t normal. You realize this isn’t just football.” ESPN analyst Ryan Clark