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ESPN’s Hamlin coverage is a blueprint for leadership in moments of crisis


Timothy T Ludwig / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 01/12/23

The measured, thoughtful, and heartfelt coverage shows how to respond with leadership in very scary situations.

When someone reaches a position of leadership, we usually think of the authority and prestige of the position. We don’t often think of the downsides and hardships. 

But one hard thing about being in a leadership role, whether it’s as a news commentator, politician, CEO, parent, medical professional, or in many other positions, is how to handle things in the inevitable crisis.

We saw an example of this in real time on Monday, January 2, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field. The world seemed to stop for a time as medical personnel rushed to his aid. 

As the chilling tragedy unfolded, every thought and prayer, both in the stadium and from the fans at home, went with Hamlin. No one could take their mind off it for a moment, and no other topic felt like it mattered. 

Then he was gone, and the sports commentators were left to piece together some type of coverage while they shared with all the other onlookers a universal feeling of shock and devastation.

The way that ESPN reporters responded to the crisis has received praise from many quarters. 

Nicole Kraft, Associate Professor of Clinical Communication at The Ohio State University, wrote, “I’m a professor of sports journalism, and ESPN really did the best they could with Damar Hamlin’s horrific injury on Monday Night Football.” 

Meanwhile, Jimmy Traina wrote for Sports Illustrated, “ESPN Did Everything Right in Covering Tragic Damar Hamlin Injury.” 

There is a lot to learn from how ESPN covered the situation. In a way, their careful and humane response offers a blueprint for leaders responding to crises on a moment’s notice. 

Here are a few of the reasons that ESPN got it right.

1Honest acknowledgment of how everyone was feeling

ESPN reporters described what everyone was feeling clearly and honestly, without falling into speculation.

ESPN studio broadcaster Suzy Kolber said, “The emotion that we’re experiencing tonight is really hard to describe. We cannot and will not speculate. What we do know is he needed CPR, and that in itself is terrifying.”

Meanwhile ESPN’s Troy Aikman, a Hall-of-Fame quarterback who suffered numerous concussions throughout his career with the Dallas Cowboys, was quick to see the situation from the players’ point of view, saying, “How do you as a member of the Buffalo Bills or the Cincinnati Bengals continue on to play football?” 

Then he acknowledged what viewers were thinking and feeling, saying, “It puts things in perspective real quick.”

From the studio, Booger McFarland added, “I think we reached a point where nobody is concerned about football anymore tonight.”

2Choosing compassion and empathy over protocol

Typically, when there’s an injury in a football game, networks cut to commercial. No doubt that’s what many expected. But instead, ESPN’s coverage went over an hour without commercials.

The broadcasters seemed to take a step back from the bottom line to really see the big picture and bring empathy and compassion to the crisis. As Jason Clinkscales wrote, “… what we got was honesty, confusion, fear, and pain. We got reality.”

3A heartfelt and sincere personal response

One of the most moving moments from that night’s coverage came when former NFL quarterback turned broadcaster Dan Orlovsky took time on air to pray from his heart for Hamlin. You can read all about the powerful moment, including the full prayer, in Aleteia’s coverage of it

Time and again, we find ourselves turning God when things are worst. A crisis brings us to prayer in a way that we often don’t when everything is going well. 

Even for viewers who might not be religious, everyone can appreciate a heartfelt and sincere reaction like Orlovsky’s. His and the other reporters’ coverage was measured, thoughtful, and very much from the heart, giving a memorable example of how to respond with leadership in very scary situations.

As Hamlin recovers, he has said he is grateful he is for everyone’s prayers and is very moved to see so many praying for him. 

In one tweet, he wrote, “thankful for everyone who has reached out and prayed … keep praying for me!” 

In another, he wrote, “The love is felt, & extremely real. No matter race or religion everybody coming together in prayer! 🙏❤️”

We will keep those prayers coming, Damar!

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