When a televised sporting event takes a stunning twist toward tragedy, there’s a cliché that is sometimes deployed with the intention of giving the benefit of the doubt to the broadcasters and studio talent, who suddenly find themselves swimming in a sea of serious uncertainty.
There’s no blueprint for covering something like this.
Setting aside any conversation on whether there should even be a blueprint — isn’t every tragic sports moment, such as Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, its own circumstance? — I believe a standard was set for how to talk about frightening moments in real time Monday night.
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt and Ryan Clark were nothing short of extraordinary in discussing the agonizing scene in Cincinnati on “SportsCenter” in the immediate aftermath of Bills safety Damar Hamlin requiring CPR and being taken off the field by ambulance after collapsing following a tackle against the Bengals on “Monday Night Football.”
Van Pelt, the anchor, and Clark, a superb studio analyst and former safety for the Steelers and Redskins, were poised and compassionate, eloquent and emotional, authentic and sincere. They were unabashedly human. To perhaps their greatest credit, they did not give in to the temptation of speculation.
They put to words the unease and worry that so many fans were feeling while waiting for further news on Hamlin’s status. Emotionally, they were every one of us. I don’t know if what they did was a blueprint. But it’s definitely a standard. I cannot imagine anyone handling it better.
The circumstances, again, are specific and of different magnitudes. But watching Van Pelt navigate the 10 p.m. hour in particular with compassion and decency reminded me of how viewers of a different generation felt about Jim McKay.
Clark is a welcome presence any time he appears on ESPN, whether it’s a debate show or an NFL studio program, and when I saw him in studio Monday night, my first thought was, “Good, I’m glad he is on.”
In a text, Van Pelt said, “Ryan was brilliant. We trust each other and care for each other and that really helped. Heavy night.”
Few ex-players, let alone current analysts, could relate to the Hamlin situation in the way that Clark could. He was uniquely qualified to speak about what was happening; he played the same position, delivered and absorbed some ferocious hits in his 13 seasons, and once found himself in a life-or-death situation, having to be rushed to the hospital in 2007 after suffering a splenic infarction because of hereditary sickle cell anemia while at Denver’s Mile High Stadium.
What follows is a lightly condensed transcript of 1 minute and 37 seconds of Clark’s commentary on “SportsCenter,” in which he related his experiences, explained the football player’s warrior mind-set, and reminded us to think of Hamlin’s loved ones. It’s even more exceptional when you watch the video and hear the emotion and empathy in his voice, but his words standing alone are too good not to use here:
“I think the first thing, this is about Damar Hamlin. It’s about a young man who at 24 years old was living his dream. Who, a few hours ago, was getting ready to play the biggest game of his NFL career, and there was probably nowhere else in the world he wanted to be. And now, he fights for his life.
“So many times in this game and in our job as well, we use the clichés ‘I’m ready to die for this,’ ‘I’m willing to give my life for this,’ ‘It’s time to go to war,’ and I think sometimes we use those things so much we forget that part of living this dream is putting your life at risk.
“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. When you see both teams on the field crying in that way, your first thought is Damar Hamlin, the second thought is his family.
“This isn’t about a football player, right? This is about a human. This is about a brother. This is about a son. This is about a friend. This is about someone who is loved by so many, and you have to watch him go through this.
“I dealt with this before. And I watched my teammates for days come to my hospital bed and just cry. Had them call me and tell me that they didn’t think I was going to make it. And now this team has to deal with that, and they have no answers.
“So the next time that we get upset at our favorite fantasy player or we’re upset that the guy on our team doesn’t make the play and we’re saying ‘he’s worthless’ and we’re saying ‘you get to make all this money,’ we should remember that they’re putting their lives on the line to live their dream, and tonight Damar Hamlin’s dream became a nightmare not only for himself, but for his family and his entire team.”
It should be noted that Van Pelt and Clark weren’t the only ESPN personalities who did trustworthy work under trying circumstances. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were appropriately respectful in the broadcast booth as the scene unfolded before them.
Buck may find himself caught in something of a controversy since he said four different times that the players had five minutes to warm up and resume the game, something NFL executive Troy Vincent later denied. (The players, most teary-eyed or wearing shell-shocked looks, were warming up, and I’ll take Buck’s word over the NFL’s 150 times out of 100.)
Aikman was the first to suggest that perhaps the game should not go on, saying, “I just don’t know how these players can come out and play.”
Studio analyst Booger McFarland, who found the right words when fellow panelist Adam Schefter somewhat understandably ran out of things to say and kept reiterating the word “chilling,” was the first to declare that the game must be stopped, saying at 9:44 p.m., “We’re done playing football tonight. We’re done. Let’s make the call.”
The game was called soon thereafter, a little more than an hour after Hamlin collapsed. The best of ESPN was still to come.
Read more about Damar Hamlin
- Experts break down medical response to Damar Hamlin’s collapse: Quick thinking saved his life
- Bills-Bengals game will not resume this week; Patriots-Bills still on for Sunday
- Fans give millions to Damar Hamlin’s toy drive for kids
- Damar Hamlin injury sparks discussion of condition known as commotio cordis
- On Football: Damar Hamlin’s condition is far more important than football
- Damar Hamlin injury: What we know about why it happened
- “Please pray for our brother”: NFL players rally around Damar Hamlin after shocking injury