The job I get to do on a daily basis is pretty cool. I get paid to talk and write about football athletes and that means more than just sitting at a computer and pounding away on a keyboard. No, I get to interact with men and women from all backgrounds in different times and settings. It’s a lot of fun and genuinely interesting and enlightening on most days.
But there are days when the job is a bit tougher than most. One of the more sobering reminders when covering football is the injuries. They are incessant, and it gets really dire when those injuries are serious enough to require stretchers and hospital trips.
However, nothing could have prepared even a seasoned sportswriter for what they saw on Monday night in Cincinnati. Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. For one of the rare times when watching football, it genuinely felt terrifying. Not just that, it felt helpless, as none of the signs we are accustomed to seeing, such as motion or a thumbs-up came from Hamlin.
Just as sobering, however, was the reaction of Bills teammates and the Bengals players. Players were crying and were seeing something they had never seen on a football field. Right then, in that immediate scene, the human aspect of life takes over. The little ball made of pigskin became nothing but an insignificant factor that had to be ignored at all costs. This was about a human life, a son, a brother, a role model, and a friend.
In the media, the first thought should not have been about the football game, but rather about Damar Hamlin and his health. The second thought should have been about his family and friends. Finally, the third thought should be about his fellow football players. This is a situation that requires human empathy. Scott Van Pelt, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters, and Ryan Clark put on a fantastic display of human empathy in the context of the night. It was not about a football game, but it was about who Damar and the players were as humans.
However, Fox Sports’ Skip Bayless crossed a line in this regard. After the injury, Bayles speculated on if the NFL could postpone the game given the implications this matchup had on the ensuing week’s games in a Tweet that was repeatedly called out by players.
“No doubt the NFL is considering postponing the rest of this game – but how,” Bayless said. “This late in the season, a game of this magnitude is crucial to the regular-season outcome … which suddenly seems so irrelevant.”
No doubt the NFL is considering postponing the rest of this game – but how? This late in the season, a game of this magnitude is crucial to the regular-season outcome … which suddenly seems so irrelevant.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) January 3, 2023
At this moment, simply put, the game does not matter. It is about respecting the fact that a human’s life is at risk, and not about the implications of postponing the game. This is the time to show raw emotion and be in that space. Bayless is off the mark here, but he was not alone tonight in being off the mark in the approach to his reporting style. Such a situation has to be dedicated to itself with thoughtfulness, care, grace, and more importantly, empathy. Everything about this approach from Bayless misses these marks.
It’s very simple in this spot — think about the person, their friends, their family, and their teammates that have just been traumatized by the events that just occurred.
Too often on social media last night, I saw a complete mess by the media in that regard. The media has to know better, and while the masses have little to no excuse for a lack of empathy as well, the sports journalism world has to hold itself to a standard of reporting on these athletes as more than just pawns in a bigger game.
Athletes are humans, with real emotions, families, friends, passions, and motivations. In no way can coverage of athletes, especially in circumstances like this, be presented as such where they are robots. No, care needs to be given to the coverage of athletes day in and day out as humans.
As basic as that sounds, it is a criminally overlooked part for some in the media. Monday’s debacle just highlights the pitfalls when human empathy is not employed in the sports journalism world.