Football excites and exhilarates as bodies are pushed far beyond places they should ever be pushed. Viewers, even if they'd rather not admit it, sign a social contract. In exchange for countless hours of entertainment, there's the ignored fine print warning that, at any time, tragedy can strike. It's a hopeless addiction we all share where gutting, life-altering injuries become ephemeral once the action resumes.
On Monday night the action never resumed. Everyone involved was forced to confront their own inaction. To grapple with the fact that we couldn't do anything but be human and respect the humanity of Damar Hamlin. ESPN, co-signers of a different yet similar contract as a rightsholder, found itself in an impossible situation, even if the logical part of our brains understands that something like this is actually predictable.
An information vacuum and immense pressure created a minefield. Things could have gone wrong in any number of ways. Instead, everyone involved with the broadcast and continuing coverage rose to the moment.
Does this matter at all in comparison to Hamlin's health? Of course not. But it does matter. Because what the network provided was a safe and respectful gathering place for millions of people who needed to be part of a collective. Who didn't want to be alone with their social media feeds. Who needed to do the cathartic work of processing what they just saw.
Booger McFarland was assertive and powerful with his common sense plea to postpone the game as it suffered through a prolonged purgatory. His sentiments were echoed by other talent because it was the only appropriate course of action. It's a bit fucked-up to give brownie points for stating what absolutely had to be stated, yet Disney's enormous financial relationship with the league makes clear-headed tough love a bit more difficult.
Ryan Clark, who believes it was no accident he was scheduled, spoke about his own near-death experience and expertly painted the emotional state of play. Constantly calm he navigated live television with otherworldly tack and poise alongside Scott Van Pelt — the exact right person for such a difficult job in his earned position.
LIsa Salters, reporting mere feet from where medical personnel performed CPR, did not try to stifle the trauma as she kept everyone up to date.
What ESPN did last night is a testament to journalism and humanity. It proved that, when they want to be — or are perhaps forced to be — this can be a top-notch news network. Everyone who works there should be proud of what they did and how they did it.
They did it by steering into the discomfort of not knowing. By steering into the comfort of hoping. Hamlin the person was always at the center of the frame. There was no cacophony of experts looking to increase their brand by doing a cable news hit. There was no forced debate. There was no needless speculation. What happened was anything but okay yet it was more than okay not to know everything.
This is a simple and devastating story about a man's life. It was presented without clutter and with the proper gravity and tone. No one on television wants to ever be in the position or plans to be in this position. What we saw last night was the wisdom in being a person. In allowing one's self to not be a robot. In moving the conversation forward in baby steps because there's no point or value in rushing.
Thank God for this. And thank God for the other outpourings of charity and kindness that abounded. At a time where divisiveness reigns, there was such shared compassion and concern. It shouldn't take something like this to spark a few hours of collectiveness yet it was no less uplifting to be reminded, once again, that an overwhelming majority of people mean well and, crucially, care about other people.
ESPN was the meeting place with the most room. How they presented things was always going to shape how the public at large wrapped their minds around it. It's a position they didn't want to be in, and hopefully don't have to be in again. They wielded that power and privilege responsibly and humanely.