Sport an all too familiar forum for real-life tragedies

ESPN has to be careful how it goes at the best of times.

Its dominance of US sport is well chronicled. With great power comes great responsibility and the associated PR headaches.

The atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday was always going to be a long shadow across the slate of NFL, NBA and College games set for the weekend.

Adding to the normal obligations that go with a traumatic day, their headquarters is located in the very state that was being torn apart by the shooting.

It’s beginning to become routine now for US sports broadcasters but they could never have imagined treading carefully through life and death would be part of their job description.

And so, as the barely believable reality of the Sandy Hook killings began to crystallise, the ESPN executives sprang into action so as to ensure there would be no missteps that could be interpreted as insensitive.

According to Deadspin.com, an internal memo circulated around their Bristol base called on staff to avoid any use of social media until further notice as the horrid details emerged.

Sport meant nothing and that would have to be the way it appeared in deeds as well.

More tricky of course would be the language employed by the commentators they were sending to the various live broadcasts set to take place on Friday and Saturday in particular.

To quote the same memo, ESPN staff were implored upon to “refrain from using ‘shooter’ or other words which are not appropriate given the tragedy”.

This is American sport; violent, visceral language is the norm.

The shooter is of course the most common way of describing the basketballer who has directed a free throw or a jump shot or a three-point attempt from the perimeter. It was, as many observers noted, an impossible task that would eventually fail to make it through most of that evening’s Boston Celtics/Houston Rockets game.

Football also has its terminology which in a different setting would be worrying but was now all of a sudden a major problem. Most prominent is the “shotgun formation” which places the quarterback deeper behind the line of scrimmage, giving him room to decide on where he’ll send the pass. Then there is the so-called “pistol offense” which is a version of the shotgun with the quarterback standing closer to the centre before the ball is snapped to him.

All very technical but the notable irony which brought this into focus was that the team that came up with the pistol, the University of Nevada, were playing a televised game on Friday night leaving the two ESPN commentators with a conundrum. Bob Wischusen and Danny Kanell decided that their “small way of showing respect to the tragedy” would be to persistently use the term, the “Nevada formation”.

Not all sports journalists have been muzzled however.

While two earlier specifically sporting tragedies disappeared deep into insignificance this past weekend, it is still fresh in minds that the NFL had found itself reacting to two fatal incidents involving players that led to greater societal debates.

Domestic violence and depression led Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher to shoot dead his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and then himself. The weekend after that, Jerry Brown of the Dallas Cowboys practice squad was tragically killed when the car he was a passenger in was crashed by his drunk teammate, Josh Brent.

The Belcher shooting caused a notable backlash against gun culture on the primetime Sunday night television football broadcast, the most watched television show in the country. Veteran sports anchor Bob Costas decided at half-time to echo a Jason Whitlock column and make the simple observation: “If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

It was alarming, even for one so vociferous, to see a football game be used as a political soapbox.

Then on Monday, the even more confrontational Buzz Bissinger emerged with his take. He is first and foremost a sportswriter and the author of the classic Friday Night Lights in which he left a northeastern city to immerse himself in the beguiling backwardness of Odessa.

“Our folklore which defines the essence of a country’s identity,” he wrote as he despaired of there ever being any change in the law, “extols the image of the intrepid frontiersman: tough, determined, individualistic, and self-taught to shoot first and negotiate over the size of the coffins later.”

Sport can try to heal or offer an outlet but there’s nothing anyone can say or do that will fix death on that scale.

However, the US sports media is getting better at ensuring their presence doesn’t exasperate the problem and if there are opinions expressed, they tend to be considered, intelligent and given an appropriate stage, not just tossed around for ratings.

The sad thing is that they are getting a lot of practice.

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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