“We were sitting in the green room eating dinner when we got word that we were needed back on set,” said McFarland. “As I’m walking toward the set my only thought was, ‘What exactly do they want us to say?’ That’s all Adam Schefter and I were thinking. I’ve hit people and been hit so many times on that field, and to see that play out where we are watching life and death play out on national television is an uncomfortable feeling. When I saw the look on the trainers’ and doctors’ faces, I knew this was different. Then you hear they are doing CPR, which means he’s having difficulty breathing. All I could think about was life or death for this young man. That is something I never thought would happen on an NFL field.”
McFarland was based last night at ESPN’s New York City studios with host Suzy Kolber and Schefter. You could see the anguish on his face from the moment Kolber turned to him to discuss the play. The players know when something is really bad — and McFarland played eight seasons in the NFL at defensive tackle. He has seen and felt the violence of the sport. He eloquently explained that the players understand the inherent violence of the game and the risks that come with it. But what happened in Cincinnati was different.
“We break bones, we get surgeries, we get concussions,” McFarland said on the air. “As football players, we are conditioned to deal with those things. That’s part of our game. When you bring CPR out, you are trying to help someone breathe. You are talking life or death now. That’s totally different than anything I am used to seeing on the field.”
Kolber asked him about the notion of returning to the field and McFarland was able to personalize things in a way for those of us in the audience who have never suited up in the NFL.
“Their teammate was just given CPR on the field,” McFarland said. “That would be the only thing I’d be concerned about. Is he OK? What’s going on? I don’t want to hear about the game. I don’t want to hear about a game plan. I don’t want to hear about what the NFL is talking about. I want to hear about how my teammate is doing. Is he OK? I need to hear that before I can talk about anything else tonight.”
Live television is never easy. It becomes exponentially difficult when tragedy breaks and little information exists. To review how ESPN did on Monday night is, of course, insignificant against Hamlin’s injury. But how they presented what we saw impacted how all of us processed the horrible scenes. You want thoughtful people on air. You want people who don’t speculate. You want people with basic humanity.
McFarland, Lisa Salters, Joe Buck, Ryan Clark, Kolber, Schefter, Scott Van Pelt, Troy Aikman, John Parry and pretty much everyone who appeared on air Monday for ESPN fulfilled this charter. The game production led by producer Phil Dean and director Jimmy Platt was thoughtful as well. (Vice president of production Seth Markman, coordinating producer Matt Garrett and producer Greg Shapiro were guiding the studio coverage from Kolber, McFarland and Schefter.)
The game broadcast went to a break after the play and then showed two initial replays before going again to commercial. Those replays were very hard to watch. You could hear Aikman audibly react when Hamlin fell backward to the ground next to an official. There were shots of anguished players and players praying.
‘“There’s just nothing to say right now,” said Buck, somberly. “We’ll take another break and be right back.”
ESPN was very fortunate to have Salters. She let the audience know how the Bills players were struggling, reporting that players were “openly weeping.” She reported on wide receiver Stefon Diggs attempting to fire the team up, only to have players return to the bench looking devastated and hugging each other.
Information was fluid. Buck said on multiple occasions the players would have five minutes to warm up, citing the league, and at one point, broadcast cameras showed Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow tossing warm-up throws. Early Tuesday morning, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said the league never considered resuming play Monday night. ESPN released a statement on the situation Tuesday.
“There was constant communication in real time between ESPN and league and game officials,” the statement said. “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.”
Buck asked Aikman how the players could navigate this emotionally, and Aikman offered honesty — he had no answer.
“No one has been through this,” Aikman said. “I have never seen anything like it.”
Parry, ESPN’s officiating analyst, was the one to tell the audience 23 minutes after Hamlin’s injury that the game had been suspended, and that, in his words, the league would let the players and coaches drive what happened next. Buck immediately said that it was the right call to get the players away from the cameras and crowd. Aikman could not fathom continuing the game.
“I can’t imagine going in (to the locker room) and being able to gain any type of composure and then expect to play in a competitive football game,” Aikman said.
ESPN was judicious about showing replays of Hamlin falling to the ground. They used mostly wide shots of the field, with occasional close-ups on players. The production understood the gravity of the situation. Buck’s voice and words made it clear that this was no ordinary injury. Salters reported only what she saw on the field and that medical officials had been working on Hamlin for nine minutes. Buck told the audience officials were administering CPR, which if you were watching at home was jarring to hear. As Buck said after the game: “I’m sick to my stomach.”
After the main broadcast concluded its coverage, Van Pelt and Salters engaged in a long and thoughtful conversation, with Salters offering thoughts only on what she saw with her eyes. It was a clinic in how a reporter with a long history of investigative reporting processes things in real-time. Clark, who played 13 seasons in the NFL and at the same position as Hamlin, soon joined Van Pelt. Clark is a key part of ESPN’s most critically praised NFL show, “NFL Live,” and his words echoed McFarland’s anguish. He explained to Van Pelt about the impossibility of attempting to play after Hamlin collapsed. He spoke about Hamlin’s mother sleeping in her son’s hospital room in a foreign city.
“I think football brings out the humanity in some of us some of the time,” Clark said. “Not all of the time. Because we’re asked to be barbaric. We’re asked to have a certain level of machismo. We’re asked to watch people lay on the ground that may not be able to get up themselves and step over them and be able to play the next snap. That’s where we get to where we are. And for the first time, I think both teams and all of the people in the stands had to finally say, ‘You know what? That little ball made of pigskin is the least important thing in the world to all of us right now.’”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 3, 2023
Van Pelt’s show was produced by Mike McQuade, Diego Longo and Marco Alfandary, and at 11:09 p.m. ET, Salters was a lone figure on the Paycor Stadium field. Again, she described for Van Pelt what she saw from players at that late hour.
“It’s something that I have never seen before and hope to never see again,” Salters said. “And keep this in mind, as well. We were all shielded from the middle of the field. We could not see — and rightfully so, we shouldn’t have been able to see — what medical personnel were doing for Damar Hamlin. But those players, they saw it and you could see just how traumatized they were by what they saw. Our thoughts and prayers to Damar Hamlin and his family and to all. These guys who were out here on the field tonight. This isn’t something that should happen.”
Lisa Salters is understandably very emotional right now pic.twitter.com/4p9BaGPcCo
— Ben Brown 🌻 (@BenBrownPL) January 3, 2023
She was emotional as she spoke, ultimately human, and working for viewers. She reflected the quality of her colleagues. So did McFarland. He has not had the smoothest run at ESPN, including being put in the impossible position of being a game analyst on a crane. But he showed on Monday, as did Salters and the others, how experience combined with humanity can serve a sports audience. After his segment concluded, McFarland said he went back to his hotel and called his wife. He then talked to some of his closest friends.
“I then prayed for Damar and asked God to watch over that young man and his family,” McFarland said Tuesday morning.
On a horrific night in Cincinnati, this was ESPN at its best.
(Photo: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)
This content was originally published here.