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IN A RAGING WAR OVER INTEGRITY — NFL VS. ESPN — I’M TAKING PINOCCHIO
As they blame each other for logistical insensitivity surrounding Damar Hamlin’s collapse, the league and its TV partner are both wrong — when all of us should be focused on his remarkable recovery
Given the choice of believing the NFL or ESPN, I might propose George Santos or Pinocchio as more honest alternatives. A $30 billion partnership is locked in an integrity battle, each trying to distance itself from the depraved insensitivity of caring more about the resumption of a Monday night football game than Damar Hamlin’s life.
The good news: Hamlin has been discharged from a Buffalo hospital, nine days after last rites were considered, in what has become a biblical recovery. Better news: He’ll be nearby — who knows, maybe in Highmark Stadium for a series or two? — for the Bills’ playoff opener Sunday. But this blessing hasn’t stopped a raging skirmish of finger-pointing between two loathsome entities.
It’s impossible to pick a side. Both are evil.
ESPN is straining very hard to blame the league. The network went so far to summon its lead investigative snoop, Don Van Natta Jr., who specifically pinpointed Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations, as the main culprit in a chaotic command center on that frightful evening last week. For anyone reading Van Natta’s story, it’s easy to arrive at a clearcut conclusion: Vincent, while on the phone with commissioner Roger Goodell, was instrumental in keeping alive the resumption of the Bills-Bengals game long after Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest, long after his heart stopped twice and long after he was whisked to the hospital.
Targeting Vincent is ESPN’s way of avoiding a high-level problem with Goodell, who determines the network’s standing within a league that hasn’t always been fond of Disney Company executives. When in doubt, hammer the corporate flunky, not the man in charge who negotiates and approves media contracts. Allow me, then, to take the elevator upstairs, to the C-suite at league headquarters on Park Avenue.
Fact: The NFL rule book states that Goodell is authorized to postpone any game, if circumstances demand, as he sees fit.
Fact: Goodell did not postpone the game, even when it became apparent to players, coaches and millions of viewers that Hamlin’s heart had stopped and required frantic CPR attempts on the field.
Fact: More than an hour after Hamlin’s collapse and a half-hour after doctors furiously began to save his life at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the league STILL had not made a postponement decision.
Somewhere in the thought process of NFL leadership, then, the idea was kept alive that the game could be resumed. That is abominable. That is unspeakable. That is, on some level, worthy of a Congressional investigation. A responsible league doesn’t consider business ramifications as a player fights for his life. An accountable commissioner taps into Rule 17-1-4 and immediately postpones the game as soon as Hamlin is loaded into the ambulance. A human commissioner realizes players from both teams are distraught and in no position to play football.
Instead, this commissioner allowed what seemed an eternity to pass before the game finally was postponed at 10:01 p.m. Eastern — 66 minutes after Hamlin fell in a heap. Instead, Goodell ignored the pleas of the NFL Players Association, which demanded the game be postponed once Hamlin’s dire condition was known. The union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, said he called Goodell exactly 15 minutes after Hamlin collapsed. But four minutes later, when word should have come down to send everyone home, Bills coach Sean McDermott and Bengals coach Zac Taylor met on the field with referee Shawn Smith. The game was not postponed. Oddly, as Goodell explained Sunday in an interview with a Boston radio station, he chose to let players from both teams help decide whether to proceed.
What? When pressed to make a historically important executive decision, on the spot, a ham-handed commissioner passed the buck to players in no emotional position to help the league with its problem. “Many times we were prepared to make that decision, the players wanted to continue discussing it with their teams. And we had to give them that opportunity,” Goodell said.
I’ve yet to hear one player from either team say anyone in either locker room wanted the game to resume. Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader said jumbled psyches would have made continuing “damn near impossible.” The players did not want to play. They were waiting for Roger Goodell to make a decision he couldn’t make. Deflecting the onus onto the players to decide? It sounds like a way to keep a clock ticking while monitoring Hamlin’s condition in the hospital. If the fallen player was improving, then, “Hey, America, are you ready for some football?” The union remains furious, as it should be.
“I don’t think it should be a players’ call, I don’t think it should be a coaches’ call,” Smith said in a news conference. “I think given the severity of the injury and what the players witnessed, that it needed to be a call that the NFL needed to make.”
Goodell further implicated himself when he spoke of the timeline between the decision to suspend the game and postpone it. There never should have been a gap. The suspension should have been a postponement. “A standard practice would be to resume play, but when you get feedback that it may not be appropriate, that's when Troy made the decision to suspend play," Goodell said. “Which was the right decision, and allow everyone to go back and let's gather ourselves and get more information, which was clear we needed to do. So, and then I made the decision to postpone shortly thereafter."
The problem here — and I speak for reasonable people — was the time period Goodell used to “allow everyone to go back and … gather ourselves and get more information.” The information was as obvious as a heart attack. Hamlin was on his deathbed. The players knew. The coaches knew. The viewers knew. Goodell kept waiting anyway. Why? Because the NFL’s greed and self-importance was more important, in the moment, than a dying player. Herein lies the meat-on-the-hoof, grind-‘em-up mentality that too often exposes the league as heartless and cutthroat, as run by owners who treat players like slaves. The NFL has minimized brain trauma. The NFL has forced players to risk serious injuries on turf when they beg to play on much softer grass. Now the league has been caught minimizing heart failure. There can be no excuse. The proof is in the clock, what happened between 8:55 p.m. and 10:01 p.m.
Where ESPN loses me is when the network entirely blames the league for another cold-blooded blunder — a stated premise at 9:14 p.m. that the game would resume after a five-minute warmup. That’s when play-by-play voice Joe Buck made his first of four such announcements on the prime-time telecast. “They’re going to try to continue to play this game,” Buck said, adding two minutes later, “They've been given five minutes to quote-unquote get ready to go back to playing. That's the word we get from the league and the word we get from down on the field, but nobody's moving.” The league vehemently denies issuing such information to ESPN, with Vincent saying emotionally, “I was the one ... communicating with the commissioner. We never, frankly, it never crossed our mind to talk about warming up to resume play. That's ridiculous. That's insensitive, and that's not a place that we should ever be in.”
The information, Buck said, came from John Parry, ESPN’s officiating analyst. Parry, Buck said, was speaking directly to the league command center in New York, where Vincent was first in command as Goodell was monitoring elsewhere. If I am the chairman of ESPN, and I’m giving around $2.7 billion a year to the NFL through 2033 for broadcast rights, I do not let Parry — who is not a journalist — determine what goes over my air as petrified millions await a Hamlin update. Nor do I want Buck releasing that information on the air, multiple times, if there is any uncertainty. It was the network’s call to have Buck hand off to Parry, who said he’d “just talked with New York” and that the game was only being “temporarily” suspended while strongly inferring a resumption was forthcoming.
If that is true, why is the league so adamant that Parry’s information was false? Can we be so sure Parry is clean and reliable? ESPN employs hundreds of journalists who could have started making calls. The network’s NFL insider, Adam Schefter, should have been among them — except he was on the air with Suzy Kolber and Booger McFarland, holding fort in the studio when Buck and Troy Aikman had nothing more to say in the stadium booth. Here is where the journalism lines always blur at the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader In Sports.” What is ESPN truly all about in such a fraught situation, in such a defining professional moment?
Is it a profit-ravenous conglomerate in business bed with sports leagues? Or a leading news organization? In that moment, Buck’s rush to say the game would resume could be construed as an attempt to maintain a big audience. Remember, this was a hyped game between two Super Bowl contenders, on a network hungry to post a huge ratings number on a “Monday Night Football” franchise that has struggled for years. ESPN didn’t have to shoot to an image of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow warming up, another image of Bills receiver Stefon Diggs gathering his teammates.
If the network had nothing solid to report in the booth or the studio, flip to a college basketball game until it’s sensible to return. That way, you don’t hold an audience hostage with b.s. You wait until there is finality, which came 45 minutes later. Those piercing shrieks are from Bristol. What, waste 45 minutes of prime time on filler programming? If ESPN had a journalism-first mentality, the flip-away would have been a no-brainer. Instead, there was fumbling and bumbling and, now, banging and blaming.
Disputing Vincent, the network said, “There was constant communication in real time between ESPN and league and game officials. 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.”
Disputing ESPN, Vincent said, “My mic was completely open in talking to Shawn and at that time I'm the center resource. At no time in my discussion in that hour-long time frame did we ever even — myself — reference (or) give any directives about getting players ready to play.”
And where is Roger Goodell? According to a league spokesman, Parry is badly mistaken. His contact in the command center, says the NFL office, is “adamant that at no time did he say anything related to a five-minute warmup period to John Parry. ... John is just plain wrong. We stand by Troy Vincent’s comments and strongly refute this characterization.”
We’d say they are agreeing to disagree, but that would be untrue. They are engaged in a perception war, each trying to convince American consumers that it has stronger ethics and morals than the other.
George Santos sides with the NFL. Pinocchio votes for ESPN.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.