Matt Barrie, co-host of ESPN’s afternoon edition of “SportsCenter” and a prominent presence on the network’s golf coverage, figured his workday was done Tuesday when, on his way to a doctor’s appointment, he began hearing rumblings that Tiger Woods had been involved in an automobile accident.
“I’ve got some people in the golf circles where it kind of started circulating that Tiger had been in a car accident, but there has been nothing official,’’ said Barrie. “Then I saw what everyone else saw.”
At 2:28 p.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department posted a statement on Twitter, written in garish gold with a green backdrop belying the possible gravity of the situation, that Woods had been in a one-vehicle accident and, erroneously as it turned out, required the Jaws of Life to be extricated.
Barrie grew concerned about the details in the statement. And concerned about the details that might have been left untold.
“I had just parked in the parking lot at the allergy doctor when my boss had called and said, ‘Hey, are you in a position to turn around and come back?’
“And I said back to her, ‘Tiger?’
“And she said, ‘Yes.’ ’’
Barrie estimates he had left ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., campus at around 2:10, making his way to his appointment 20 minutes away.
By 3, he was back on set, anchoring ESPN’s coverage of a confusing and fluid situation.
“All I knew when I got back to the set was that it was a one-car accident, they had needed the Jaws of Life, which was since retracted, and that it was a rollover. When I heard those three things, I knew it was serious,’’ said Barrie.
“Then before we went on, I was starting to see some of the footage captured by the helicopter above the vehicle. And at that point, I thought the worst. At that point, we didn’t know that he was in surgery. At that point, we didn’t know that the injuries were not life-threatening.
“And the first thing that came to my mind is there could be a chance during the next couple of hours when I’m doing this, I might have to break horrific news.
“I thought of Kobe.”
Barrie was not alone. Thirteen months after the death of basketball great Kobe Bryant and eight others in a helicopter crash in Southern California, it was impossible to avoid wondering whether another tragedy involving a legendary athlete was unfolding.
But in a manner reminiscent of Bob Ley, ESPN’s all-time gold standard for providing gravitas when major news is breaking, Barrie resisted speculation while asking important but tactful questions to an assortment of ESPN reporters and personalities, among them Scott Van Pelt, Ramona Shelburne, and Wright Thompson.
The right questions were asked the right way. The potential Bryant parallels were noted but not overemphasized. Woods’s history with prescription drugs — he received treatment in 2017 to learn how to manage his pain and sleep medications after a DUI arrest in Florida — was acknowledged. But it was handled delicately. No presumptions were made.
“Authenticity in those moments can go a long way,’’ said Barrie. “In media, there has been a movement toward the gotcha stuff and speculations and hot-take approach, where we forget the base of our job is to deliver the news of what we have and most of the time being an extension of the viewer, recognizing and sensing and asking what they want to know.
“The thing with breaking news is often you have very little information. You have to go on what you know for sure, and nothing more than that. I’m out there by myself trying to navigate the coverage, the footage, and the statements, but I’ve got to ask appropriate questions about what’s going on while we do our best to gather that information.”
ESPN got some social-media grief for not immediately switching its coverage to Woods when the news broke at 2:25. News networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all covered the crash almost exclusively beginning at 2:30. Among sports networks, only The Golf Channel broke away from its scheduled coverage right away.
ESPN eventually moved the “The Jump,” which airs at 3, over to ESPN2, along with the regularly scheduled programming through 7 p.m.
“We had to be patient for a couple of reasons,’’ said Barrie. “We had to make sure that this was, in fact, all of the information that we had. (It was revealed during ESPN’s coverage that Woods was in surgery and the injuries were not life-threatening.)
“Two, we had to make sure we had the appropriate guests lined up to deliver any type of information that’s going to be valuable to the viewer.
“And three, we’re still in the world of COVID, and ESPN is taking all the precautions necessary to make sure everyone is socially distant and safe.”
Barrie wasn’t the only one who had left and had to come back. Because of COVID-19 protocols, ESPN’s various crews — this one included director Kalyn Flockhart, senior coordinating producers Heath Henry and Jack Obringer, vice president production Mike McQuade, and segment producer Sam Tonucci, a production team Barrie praises as being so good that working with them is like “comfort food” — can’t hang around the office and had to be rounded up again.
“In a normal time, everyone is still there. You’re in between shows,’’ said Barrie. “There are bodies everywhere. ‘Hey, we need a director. Hey, we need an audio person. Hey, we need a camera.’ You just make a call. There are extra levels of challenge now.”
Barrie was not involved in ESPN’s coverage when the news of Bryant’s death broke on Jan. 26, 2020. He said there’s only been one other breaking-news situation that he’s been part of that was similar in intensity and interest to what happened Tuesday.
“I was solo anchoring the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter,’ ” recalled Barrie. “Mike McQuade, then the head of ‘SportsCenter,’ comes to the show pod and says, ‘Hey, you need to be ready pretty quickly.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s going on? He said, ‘We’re getting the Tom Brady news any minute.’ That was the day they announced the four-game suspension in connection with Deflategate.
“Same thing as Tiger, wall-to-wall coverage, no commercial breaks. That was the most similar one because of the circumstances of being solo, and having very little information. A statement from the NFL. And that was it.”