Guiding viewers through the coverage after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during the first quarter of Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals wasn't something covered in a how-to.
ESPN's Scott Van Pelt said he knew, though, what he had to do while on the air amid a traumatic situation — be calm, reasonable, and share what's known with the audience.
"We tried our best to be human in the moment,” Van Pelt said Tuesday. “We would have tried to do a great job with a great game, and it would have been a hell of a lot of fun, and then this wasn’t. That was the gravity of it. And the seriousness of it was unusual.”
ESPN initially showed a couple of replays of Hamlin collapsing to the turf before going to a commercial. It wasn't shown again on the network throughout its coverage. Joe Buck was the first to alert viewers that medical personnel was administering CPR.
ESPN also kept its distance with its cameras while both teams huddled around Hamlin. ESPN did have the Skycam, but decided not to position it above the scene.
The restraint shown by ESPN demonstrated how networks' coverage of severe injuries during sporting events has evolved. Many still remember the constant replays of Washington quarterback Joe Theismann suffering a compound fracture to his right leg while being sacked by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor on “Monday Night Football” in 1985.
Since that moment, networks have been more judicious when showing traumatic events, whether it is players suffering gruesome injuries or accidents during motorsports events until a driver shows he is alert.
While some wondered why ESPN didn't have a doctor come on for analysis, Van Pelt said not enough information was known about what happened to Hamlin.
"I don’t see any benefit in guessing what this might be. I don’t know how we’re advancing anything,” he said.
St. Louis Blues and TNT analyst Darren Pang knows what Van Pelt means. Pang was between the benches in 2020 when St. Louis defenseman Jay Bouwmeester suffered a cardiac episode and collapsed on the bench during the first period of a game against the Anaheim Ducks.
Pang said the Blues production crew had a seminar to address things that might happen during the season. One of the scenarios was going over what happened when Dallas forward Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench during a game in 2014 due to an irregular heartbeat.
“I saw for sure more than I said, and that was because of the training they told us. I’m not a doctor, so I didn’t want to get anything wrong,” Pang said. “I saw the faces of the players, and that was enough for me to know how dire the situation was.”
Buck said multiple times that the Bills game would resume after a five-minute warmup period. There was footage showing Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow doing some light throwing and Lisa Salters reporting from the sidelines that Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs tried to give a speech firing up his team.
Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, said resuming play wasn't considered. ESPN said in a statement there was constant communication between the network, league, and game officials. As standard league protocol, networks have a direct line to the NFL throughout a game.
“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,” ESPN said in the statement.
The best perspective of the night came from ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, who was hospitalized for an extended period in 2007 after suffering a splenic infarction.
“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 said while on with Van Pelt. “We should remember that these men are putting their lives on the line to live their dream. And tonight Damar Hamlin’s dream became a nightmare for not only himself, but his family and his team.”