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Will ESPN And NFL’s Conflicting Hamlin Stories Spark Tension?

  • NFL denied Joe Buck’s assertion that the Bills-Bengals would continue play.
  • But Buck and ESPN countered that the reporting was accurate.
Troy Aikman Joe Buck Monday Night Football
Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

The fallout from Damar Hamlin’s shocking collapse on national TV could place a strain on the newly repaired business relationship between Disney’s ESPN and the NFL.

On the day after Hamlin fell to the turf with cardiac arrest, ESPN pushed back against the league’s claim it never considered resuming play between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night.

It took the NFL almost an hour to officially postpone the eagerly awaited “Monday Night Football” game between two of the AFC’s best teams. 

With Hamlin’s heart stopped on the field, ESPN’s play-by-play announcer Joe Buck repeatedly informed millions of TV viewers that both teams would warm up for five minutes before continuing play. ESPN even showed Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow tossing practice throws. 

“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,” Buck said.

But Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of operations, strongly denied ESPN’s story on a media call after the game. And he would know, added Vincent since he was in constant touch with Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and the two head coaches.

“It never crossed our mind to talk about warming up to resume play,” Vincent told the media. “That’s ridiculous. That’s insensitive. And that’s not a place that we should ever be in.”

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They say discretion is the better part of valor. On Tuesday, it might have been easier for ESPN to shut up, take the L and move on.

After all, chairman Jimmy Pitaro and executive vice president Burke Magnus have labored for years to repair the broken relationship between ESPN and the NFL that led to the Worldwide Leader in Sports getting the worst game schedule annually among the league’s TV partners.

Their work paid off, with ESPN landing the first two Super Bowls in its 43-year history due to its deal to pay the NFL $2.7 billion annually for MNF through 2033. Meanwhile, Disney smartly used sister broadcast network ABC to help ESPN win back TV rights to the NFL Draft from rival Fox Sports.

But ESPN was not happy with the narrative that it dropped the ball Monday night, said sources. Especially if the blame fell on big bucks hire Buck, who ESPN lured from Fox with a five-year, $75 million deal.

First, a still shell-shocked Buck told the New York Post his information originated with ESPN rules analyst John Parry, who got it directly from the league office.

Then ESPN dropped its own statement at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, countering the NFL’s narrative. 

“There was constant communication in real time between ESPN and league and game officials,” the network stated. “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.”

So why poke the NFL bear? Especially when the executives at the league’s Park Avenue headquarters in New York have long memories?

The bottom line, said sources, is that ESPN brass in Bristol was proud of the careful way it covered one of the most chilling and challenging moments in NFL history.

Analyst Booger McFarland of “Monday Night Football” was the heart of the coverage, advising the NFL to call it a night before the league officially announced its postponement. 

“We’re done playing football tonight…Let’s move on. We as a network will figure out something to do,” McFarland said.

The NFL had time to correct ESPN’s report while the game was delayed. But it didn’t, sources said.

Every company should back its people at a certain point – especially if management believes they did the right thing. 

With Buck and on-air partner Troy Aikman in the first year of twin five-year deals, letting them take the fall could have sparked its own PR nightmare for ESPN. 

So ESPN rolled the dice – and challenged the NFL’s preferred narrative. 

Admirable? Sure. Smart? That’s questionable. 

The most powerful corporate organizations like the NFL, Apple, Amazon, Walmart, and Augusta National Golf Club don’t like it when junior partners speak up. They prefer discretion. And obedience.

So it bears watching whether the conflicting narratives between ESPN and NFL spark fireworks. Or if both companies would rather this story just went away. 

The 24-year-old Hamlin remained in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital.

UPDATE: During a press call with the media Wednesday, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of operations, took umbrage at the notion the league told TV partner ESPN that Bills-Bengals would resume despite Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffering cardiac arrest on the field.

“I just want to be clear, just that suggestion alone [that the NFL told ESPN that the game would be restarted after a 5-minute warmup period] was inappropriate, it was insensitive and, frankly, it lacked both empathy and compassion for Damar’s situation, who is still fighting for his life. It was just so insensitive to think that we were even thinking about returning to play,” Vincent stated.

“I just wanted to share that because it came up, and I think there’s been a little bit of discussion. I don’t know who said it, and I really don’t care, but the only thing that mattered to myself, the team here, the folks in the stadium, and the coaches, was the health and wellness of Damar and getting those coaches back to the locker room so they can look their players in their eyes. They were hurting. There was a lot of pain and talking to the Commissioner and communicating with everyone…We just couldn’t play.”

Senior Reporter AJ Perez contributed to this story.

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