It took the National Football League nearly an hour to officially suspend Monday night’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals after Damar Hamlin suffered a frightening injury that caused him to collapse on the field.
But the injury posed a more immediate test for ESPN, which had to respond in real time with millions watching as Hamlin, a defensive back on the Buffalo Bills, went down in the first quarter after laying a hit on Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins.
ESPN’s cameras captured Hamlin quickly standing up after delivering the blow on Higgins before almost instantly collapsing on his back and lying motionless on the field.
ESPN quickly cut to a commercial break, a relatively standard procedure after injuries on the field, and showed a replay of the hit twice for its audience once it returned to what had become a somber scene in Cincinnati.
By then it had already become clear to everyone on the field, and those watching at home, that Hamlin’s life was in jeopardy.
“We have an obligation to respect the player’s privacy in a situation like that. So, we keep a respectful distance,” a spokesperson for ESPN told The Hill on Tuesday. “We made the decision to show two angles in one replay and decided to not go back to it out of respect for Damar Hamlin. This is our typical protocol for any significant injury/illness.”
As medical personnel attended to Hamlin, several of his concerned teammates fell to their knees, many of them visibly distraught with tears in their eyes, praying and consoling one another as the young player was administered CPR on the field.
With Hamlin down for more than eight minutes and a crowd of thousands nearly silent as he was rushed away by an ambulance that had been driven onto the field, ESPN’s play-by-play crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman worked with sideline reporter Lisa Salters to piece together what had happened to Hamlin and what the status of the game would be moving forward.
“My natural instinct at that moment is not to talk,” Buck told the New York Post on Monday evening after the game was suspended. “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.”
Eventually, ESPN cut to a panel of studio hosts who sat dumbfounded at what they had witnessed and without a clue about what would happen next.
“We play a violent game. You just hate to see it. I just pray for the young man and pray for his family. That’s all I can say right now and all I know how to do,” former pro football player-turned- pundit Booger McFarland said, shaking his head. “I think we reached a point where nobody is concerned about football anymore tonight.”
After Hamlin was transported to a local hospital, the NFL announced the game would be suspended for the night and the Bills announced the player had suffered a cardiac arrest after the hit. He remained in critical condition as of Tuesday, and the NFL said the game will not resume this week.
Within minutes of the injury, major news networks such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC cut in with live coverage of the unprecedented situation involving an athlete in the country’s most popular and profitable sports league.
Media observers noted overnight Monday the difficulty of the situation ESPN was placed in, needing to fill airtime on live television instead of covering one of the biggest games of the NFL’s season as speculation about Hamlin’s injury and the status of the game swirled on social media.
“Tonight is a night you really want thoughtful people on air. You want people who don’t speculate. You want people with basic humanity,” Richard Deitsch, a leading sports media critic wrote on Twitter on Monday evening, adding that ESPN’s on-air personalities had passed the test.
“The fact they didn’t really do anything wrong is commendable. It’s easy to get stuff wrong, and you’re on one of the most watched programs of the week, and you’re in the social media age where any simple wrong word will be dissected and criticized,” J.A. Adande, the director of sports journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School, told The Hill on Tuesday.
Adande, who spent a decade working for ESPN and remains a regular panelist on its daytime talk show “Around the Horn,” said the decision not to show the replay of the hit was the right thing to do.
“Not showing the replay, not speculating even to the point of maybe underreporting, but that’s better than being erroneous,” he said.
However, the Hamlin injury spurred plenty of controversy. ESPN reported moments after the safety went down, citing the NFL, that referees for the game had suggested both teams take a five minute “warmup” period before play would resume.
The NFL pushed back on that reporting on Tuesday morning and said the game would not be finished this week.
“There was constant communication in real time between ESPN and league and game officials,” ESPN said in a separate statement on Tuesday. “As a result of that, we reported what we were told in the moment and immediately updated fans as new information was learned. This was an unprecedented, rapidly evolving circumstance. All night long, we refrained from speculation.”