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How ESPN Was Sent Fighting Over Damar Hamlin's Sudden Meltdown

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New York
CNN

“Sport is important. And suddenly it’s not.

Those were the haunting words of “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt on Monday night after Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed on the field during the high-stakes Bills-Bengals game. Within moments, Van Pelt realized that the injury was very different from those normally suffered on the football field.

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

“It turns out that the only screen I could see was the medical staff’s reaction, and it clearly wasn’t a typical response,” Van Pelt reminded me over the phone on Tuesday. “I just said, ‘That looks really bad.’ And someone in the room asked me why. And I said, ‘Look at their response.’ We all just fell silent and watched. And I was scared.”

At the end of the night, after Joe Buck and Troy Aikman concluded their broadcast, hosting duties fell to Van Pelt. The game had officially ended, but little information was still known about the status of Hamlin, who had been rushed from the field to the hospital in an ambulance. Van Pelt, who normally hosts a fun, “loosey-goosey” show focusing on the game’s brightest moments, was suddenly 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 observed to me. “I’m supposed to show up when the game is over and talk about the big plays and it’s really fun. That’s what we do. And last night that’s not what we did.

Van Pelt added: “This should be a fun show. We are the fun. There’s a lot of serious bullshit in the world, but we’re here to have fun. That’s what we do. But we are also able to cover something serious.”

Van Pelt said that before it went live, he made the decision to focus strictly on known facts. “I continued to lean on what we know,” he said. “Let’s deal with what we know, not what we would like to know or hope to find out. And the truth is, we knew very little.”

The decision to engage in zero speculation meant that Van Pelt did not want to bring in a medical or medical analyst to discuss what might have caused Hamlin’s sudden meltdown, as other news networks like CNN and MSNBC have done during their breaking news coverage. hour.

“My personal preference was not wanting 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 can recognize something that might make perfect sense. But I just didn’t want to speculate.

Instead, Van Pelt relied primarily on a raw conversation with former NFL player Ryan Clark, who also suffered a medical emergency while playing in the league. “We got to see an extremely ugly side of football tonight,” Clark commented to Van Pelt in a conversation that captivated viewers. “A side of football that no one wants to see or want to admit exists.”

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

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

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

“We tried to be measured and respectful and do the best we could to share what we knew,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”

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