How ESPN was swept away by Damar Hamlin’s sudden collapse

New York

“Sport is important. And suddenly, that’s not the case anymore.

Those were the salient words of “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt Monday night after Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed on the court during the high-stakes Bills-Bengals game. Within moments, Van Pelt knew the injury was very different from those normally sustained on the football pitch.

ESPN quickly cut a commercial break after the horrific incident left other players in tears as millions watched anxiously at home. But inside the Washington “nerve center” of the venerable sports program where Van Pelt watched the game, he had access to an internal ESPN feed that showed what was happening on the field.

“It just so happened that the only screen I could see was showing the reaction of the medical staff and that was clearly not a typical response,” Van Pelt reminded me by phone Tuesday. “I just said, ‘That looks really bad.’ And someone in the room asked me why. And I said, ‘Look at their answer.’ We all fell silent and watched. And I was scared.”

Later that evening, after Joe Buck and Troy Aikman had finished their show, hosting duties fell to Van Pelt. The match had been officially announced, but little information was yet known about the status of Hamlin, who was rushed off the field to hospital in an ambulance. Van Pelt, who normally hosts a fun, “loosey-goosey” style show focusing on the game’s brightest moments, has suddenly been tasked with anchoring the nation’s biggest news event.

“I don’t work for a news network that covers traumatic events as they happen,” Van Pelt pointed out to me. “I’m supposed to come when the game is over and talk about the big games and it’s a lot of fun. This is what we do. And last night, that’s not what we did.

Van Pelt added, “It’s supposed to be a fun show. We are the diversion. There’s a lot of serious bullshit out there, but we’re here for the fun of it. This is what we do. But we are also able to cover something serious.

Van Pelt said that before going on the air, he made the decision to focus strictly on the known facts. “I continued to build on what we know,” he said. “We will deal with what we know, not what we would like to know or hope to find out. And the truth is that we knew very little.

The decision not to speculate meant that Van Pelt did not want to bring in a medical analyst or doctor to discuss what could have caused Hamlin’s sudden collapse, as other news networks have done. such as CNN and MSNBC during their breaking news coverage.

“My personal preference was that I didn’t want to bring in a doctor to speculate,” Van Pelt told me. “I totally see the other side, where a well-trained eye of a doctor could recognize something that could very well make sense. But I just didn’t want to speculate.

Instead, Van Pelt relied heavily on a raw conversation with former NFL player Ryan Clark, who also suffered a medical emergency while playing in the league. “Tonight we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly,” Clark told Van Pelt in a conversation that captivated viewers. “A side of football that no one ever wants to see or admit exists.”

“In the absence of information, I felt that Ryan’s point of view and his words were so powerful,” Van Pelt told me, “that it was something we continued to work on, as well as any updates we could get.”

Van Pelt said that when he was on the air he felt a sense of calm “because the gravity of the situation was as clear as possible”.

And while Hamlin remained sedated in a Cincinnati hospital on Tuesday, Van Pelt said he was proud of the coverage ESPN provided viewers.

“We tried to be measured and to be respectful and to do our best to share what we knew,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”

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