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ESPN Did An Amazing Job In An Impossible Situation

“While it seems counter intuitive to say that several of the commentators were ‘stars’ of this sporting event turned news event, they were.”

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We always talk about going into a game broadcast prepared so that if something happens out of the ordinary, you are ready. There are exceptions to every rule. Case in point, January 2, 2023, in Cincinnati when the Bills and the Bengals met on Monday Night Football on ESPN. Late in the first quarter Bills player Damar Hamlin made what looked like a routine tackle. He got up from the hit and then collapsed. You could tell right away that something was seriously wrong by the way the players on the field reacted. The scene was eerie.

We found out later that first responders administered CPR. After what seemed like days, Hamlin was transported to the hospital in critical condition. This all played out in front of a stunned crowd and on national television. It was hard to watch.

You can’t possibly prepare for something like this. I wrote last year about my experience covering a Cubs/Cardinals game in 2002. Daryl Kile had passed away in his hotel room, we all knew, but his wife hadn’t been notified. We had to keep our pregame broadcast going with this unimaginable knowledge that we couldn’t share. 

We didn’t speculate. We stuck to what we knew and did the best we could. It was emotional. I couldn’t help but think of his family and teammates. It sounds cold but we had a job to do. 

As I wrote in June of 2021: There is no guidebook for how to broadcast under these circumstances. You have to rely on common sense and decency to get it done when it comes to tragedy. As much as athletes have a bit of celebrity to them, at the end of the day, they’re human beings with families, kids. When horrific injuries, or even death occur, remember that fact and treat the moment with the respect and dignity it deserves. 

Monday night was that worst case scenario for a broadcaster. Every reporter, announcer and host were looking forward to this ‘match up of the year’ and then tragedy stuck. As I watched the events unfold, I was absolutely impressed with the way ESPN handled itself. The broadcasters at the stadium were shaken and it sounded that way. The sideline reporter Lisa Salters refused to speculate on what happened. That is commendable. The studio panel could not have handled things any better, from rushing to the set, to the off the cuff commentary. 

I give ESPN producers a ton of credit. They could have easily used their ‘skycam’ to look in on the medical personnel administering CPR on Hamlin. They chose not to. Instead, there were poignant shots, of players openly weeping and praying, coaches, and fans that accurately captured the emotions of the situation. ESPN also chose not to show replays of the ‘hit’ once the gravity of the situation was realized. They didn’t go the route of sensationalism and I applaud that. After all, a man’s life was at stake.  

The worst thing from the broadcast standpoint is, you just don’t know what is happening. In the 60 or so minutes from the time of Hamlin collapsing to the NFL postponing the game, information was scarce. In those moments of air time, I was struck by the tone that pretty much everyone that appeared on the air at ESPN used. It was somber, yet the professionals working at the highest level of their field, were just human beings, reporting on another human being. There was emotion in all of their voices and frankly who could blame them? 

In the early moments after Hamlin collapsed, ESPN used sideline reporter Lisa Salters to set the scene as to what was happening on the field. She said that medical personnel were ‘working on’ Hamlin. It was later revealed by Joe Buck that in fact CPR was being performed. Pertinent information was being provided, while again not being intrusive in the moment. In those early minutes, Buck, not wanting to ramble on with speculative words, simply stated, “there is nothing more to say at this point.”

Buck after the game Monday night did a phone interview with the New York Post and said the whole thing was a ‘blur’ to him. Here’s how he was thinking in the moment. 

“My natural instinct at that moment is not to talk,” Buck said on the phone to the Post. “That’s the last thing I want to do is to put my words to this serious situation. It’s very counterintuitive as the football play-by-play guy about somebody having CPR administered to him in the center of a stadium with 65,000 people in it and a national television audience. It’s just a weird place to be.

“I think being quiet is OK. Having it being reverent and quiet is OK because the stadium was stone cold quiet and the players were in utter shock.”

He made the right choice. Less was certainly more in this situation. 

Now ESPN had a dilemma on its hands. This wasn’t the kind of thing that you could completely ‘cut away’ from. It wasn’t like a rain delay, where you could start showing highlights of the 1975 Super Bowl. They had to stick with it and make the best of this horrific situation. ESPN leaned on its studio crew and SportsCenter talent to bridge the gap when information was not flowing. 

Suzie Kolber anchored the studio coverage along with former NFL player Booger McFarland and NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Kolber took command immediately. Providing a recap in a voice that mirrored the serious nature of what was going on in Cincinnati. 

“The emotion that we’re experiencing tonight is really hard to describe,” Kolber said. “We cannot and will not speculate. What we do know is he needed CPR, and that in itself is terrifying.”

McFarland had a long playing career and has been covering the league for about 10 years. He was adamant that the NFL postpone the game, many minutes before it was actually done. He was compassionate, empathetic and emotional. The perspective he offered was spot on.

“Football is played as entertainment. I don’t think anybody is in the mood, nor the spirit to be entertained tonight. The only thing we’re concerned about is that young man, his family, what’s going on with him, making sure he’s OK. That’s it. We’ll figure out the football game at some other point in time … we’re done playing football tonight.” McFarland said seemingly fighting back tears. He then turned to what was really important in the moment, the player’s family. 

“I’m sure he has family out there, hopefully the Bills and the doctors are communicating with the family. I can only imagine what my family would [be thinking]. They’d want updates of what’s going on, just to make sure in real-time. That’s somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s father. They want to know what’s going on.”

Kolber concluded one of the studio segments saying, “let’s candidly say, this is what we do for a living, is we sit here and have to discuss this and talk about it, it’s really tough. All we want, just like everyone in this world, is to know that Damar Hamlin is going to be okay. That’s it.”

While the game was only temporarily suspended, Salters was providing updates from the tunnels of the stadium. She learned that two head coaches talked outside the Bills’ locker room. Salters said the meeting between the coaches also involved the NFL in an effort to figure out how to proceed. She never stuttered, or waivered. No um’s, just straight forward information. That’s what the audience was craving at that point. 

While it seems counter intuitive to say that several of the commentators were ‘stars’ of this sporting event turned news event, they were. That’s not taking anything away from the magnitude of what was going on. It’s simply to state that they took their reporting, commentating and emotions to another level, without providing too much opinion or speculation. I bring this up, because once the game was officially suspended, ESPN went to its SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. 

Van Pelt in so many words told the audience that his show would be dealing in facts and ‘what we know’. He showed great empathy toward Hamlin. Van Pelt did a great job of keeping the focus on Hamiln’s health. He brought in reaction from the social media world and also had both Buck and Aikman on, as well as Salters. Even though the information they provided wasn’t new, the way he asked for the updates was unique. It was less interview and more conversation, acting as a facilitator of information and a concerned colleague. He could sense the emotion and understood how to handle it. 

Joining Van Pelt from time to time on set, was analyst Ryan Clark. He was really the only one uniquely qualified to talk about the situation, because he lived it. He offered up his own personal experience about how he almost died following a game in Denver in 2007. 

The former NFL veteran, who was with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, suffered a splenic infarction because of a hereditary sickle cell anemia while at Mile High Stadium in Denver. After having his spleen and gall bladder removed, he missed the rest of the 2007 season before rejoining the Steelers in 2008.

Clark, who was visibly shaken when first on camera, wanted to make sure that everyone’s attention should be focused on Hamlin’s health. 

“I think the first thing: This is about Damar Hamlin,” he said. “It’s about a young man at 24 years old that was living his dream. That, a few hours ago, was getting ready to play the biggest game of his NFL career. And there’s probably nowhere else in the world he wanted to be. And now, he fights for his life.”

Clark continued, explaining the situation with a tone that was fact based and firm.

“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.”

He knew how Hamiln’s teammates were feeling as well, from his own personal experience. 

“I dealt with this before, and I watched my teammates, for days, come to my hospital bed and just cry. I had them call me and tell me that they didn’t think I was gonna make it. And now this team has to deal with that, and they have no answers.”

Clark then delivered a message to those fans that have become blinded by stats and outcomes of games. He perfectly humanized the situation.

“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 these guys are putting their lives on the line to live this dream.”

Remember, there is no handbook for any of this. There is no way to know how long a delay might be. There is no way to prepare. In the moment, broadcasters have to put things into proper perspective. Understanding the gravity of what they are seeing. Realizing the human aspect. Relaying that information to the audience in a fact-based type of manner. There’s no room for speculation or rumor. Your viewers are depending on you. It’s a daunting task that can overwhelm some, through no fault of their own. You do the best you can. These are situations you don’t wish on anyone. But I think we can all learn a thing or two from the way these professionals handled a very tough moment, with class and dignity.

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BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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