ESPN and Turner Sports have plenty of practice filling unexpected vacancies in their broadcast schedules over the last five-plus months.
That doesn’t mean they should be commended any less for yet another complicated job sensitively done.
In what history will remember as a seminal week for athletes using their platforms for change, and a really bad week for the stick-to-sports crowd, the news that NBA players might boycott games to protest police brutality and racial inequality first came to light Tuesday.
That was when Raptors guard Fred VanVleet revealed during his media availability that boycotting Game 1 of the second-round series with the Celtics was something players on both teams were considering.
But before the Raptors and Celtics could act, the Milwaukee Bucks announced that they would boycott Game 5 of their first-round series with the Magic Wednesday afternoon in protest the shooting of Jacob Blake. He was shot seven times in the back by police Sunday in Kenosha, Wis., approximately 40 miles from the Bucks’ team headquarters.
The Bucks-Magic game was slated to air on NBA TV at 4 p.m. Wednesday, not exactly a prime slot. But the Bucks’ action spurred further boycotts and postponements, including Celtics-Raptors Game 1, that left huge immediate voids in the networks’ live sports schedule.
Such as was the case on March 12, when Jazz player Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 led to the NBA shutting down and other sports rapidly following their lead, ESPN and Turner did remarkable work amid the chaos of important and rapidly breaking news.
When the news came Wednesday afternoon that the Bucks would not play, ESPN immediately shuffled its schedule, moving “Around The Horn” and “Pardon The Interruption” to ESPN2 and airing the NBA program “The Jump” rather than “NFL Live,’' which was scheduled for the time the news broke.
This might have seemed like a logical move, but it was also a wise one on short notice. It’s always smart to lean on Rachel Nichols, the host of “The Jump,” in times of breaking news and changing narratives. A former reporter at the Washington Post with authentic journalism bona fides, she’s proved time and again to be at her best when the circumstances are the most challenging, the death of Kobe Bryant in January being another example.
The league resumed Saturday with three playoff games after not playing since Tuesday night. In the absence of live games, ESPN relied on more “SportsCenter” programming, another savvy decision. Nighttime host Scott Van Pelt, like Nichols, has long proved his credibility and reliability in times of unexpected news. He was the anchor the night of Gobert’s positive test and navigated the fluid changes in the sports world throughout that night with aplomb.
TNT was scheduled to show two games Wednesday night. It filled its programming with a couple of movies — “The Longest Yard” and “Blended” — but did continue with its 6:30 pregame “Inside The NBA” studio program. That program, exceptional usually for its humor and the chemistry between its hosts, provided one of the most poignant moments of the week when analyst Kenny Smith walked off the set in solidarity with the NBA players.
“I think the biggest thing now — as a Black man and a former player — I think it’s best for me to not be here tonight,” Smith said, before taking off his microphone and departing the set.
Turner Sports management was supportive of Smith’s decision.
Later on that program, game analyst Chris Webber, fighting back tears, applauded the players’ decision, and lauded them for taking action even if the next steps weren’t certain yet.
“I don’t really care what the next steps are because the first steps are to garner attention, and they have everybody’s attention around the world right now,’' Webber said. “Then leadership and others will get together and decide the next steps.”
Other athletes and leagues were slower to follow the NBA lead, though they eventually did. The NHL shut down for two days, altering NBC’s programming schedule, before resuming with the Bruins-Lightning Game 4 Saturday on NBC. During the pregame show, analyst Anson Carter, who is Black, said he hoped the players used the time away to reflect on why the protests were necessary.
“As a professional athlete, you’re so hyper-focused at the task at hand,’' Carter said. “I hope the guys took this time to reflect and understand exactly why we took this pause in the action. As a Black man, I don’t have that privilege. I can’t just take a pause in all this. Social justice, and these issues in our community, it’s something I deal with every single day.”
Several MLB teams, but not all, chose not to play Thursday after Mookie Betts and the Dodgers were the first to cancel a game in protest Wednesday night.
On the MLB Network Thursday night, Pedro Martinez summed up the reasons for athletes to protest in his usual thoughtful way.
“Baseball can wait until we get an answer,’' he said. “Basketball can wait until we get an answer. Football can wait until we get an answer. Justice cannot wait.”