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Damar Hamlin’s sudden collapse sent ESPN scrambling. How Scott Van Pelt shifted from covering a game to a crisis

<i>Julio Cortez/AP</i><br/>
Julio Cortez/AP

By Oliver Darcy, CNN Business

“Sports is important. And suddenly it’s not.”

Those were the salient words of “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt Monday night after Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed on the field during the high stakes Bills-Bengals game. Within moments, Van Pelt knew that the injury was very different than those normally sustained on the football field.

ESPN quickly cut to a commercial break after the horrific incident left fellow players in tears as millions watched with bated breath at home. But inside the Washington “nerve center” of the venerable sports program where Van Pelt was monitoring the game, he had access to an internal ESPN feed that showed what was transpiring on the field.

“It just so happened that the one screen I could see showed the reaction from the medical personnel and it was clearly not a typical response,” Van Pelt recalled to me by phone Tuesday. “I just said, ‘This seems really bad.’ And someone in the room asked me why. And I said, ‘Look at their response.’ We all just fell silent and were watching. And I was scared.”

Later in the evening, after Joe Buck and Troy Aikman concluded their broadcast, hosting duties fell to Van Pelt. The game had officially been called, but little information was still known about the status of Hamlin, who had been rushed off the field to the hospital in an ambulance. Van Pelt, who normally hosts a fun, “loosey-goosey” style show focusing on the game’s brightest moments, was suddenly tasked with anchoring the biggest news event in the country.

“I don’t work for a news network that covers traumatic events when they happen,” Van Pelt noted to me. “I’m supposed to come on when the game is over and talk about the great plays and it’s great fun. That’s what we do. And last night that’s not what we did.”

Van Pelt added, “This is supposed to be a fun show. We are the diversion. There is a lot of serious bullsh*t in the world, but we are here for the fun. That’s what we do. But we are also capable of covering something serious.”

Van Pelt said that before going on the air, he made the decision to focus strictly on the known facts. “I kept leaning into what we know,” he said. “We’ll deal in what we know, not in what we wish we knew or hope to find out. And the truth is, we knew very little.”

The decision to engage in zero speculation meant that Van Pelt did not want to bring on a medical analyst or doctor to discuss what might have caused Hamlin’s sudden collapse, as other news networks such as CNN and MSNBC did during their breaking news coverage.

“My personal preference was that I didn’t want to bring in a physician to speculate,” Van Pelt told me. “I totally see the other side, where a well-trained eye of a physician might recognize something that might totally make sense. But I just didn’t want to be speculating.”

Instead, Van Pelt relied largely on a raw conversation with former NFL player Ryan Clark, who had also suffered a medical emergency while playing in the league. “Tonight we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly,” Clark commented to Van Pelt in a conversation that captivated viewers. “A side of football that no one ever wants to see or ever wants to admit exists.”

“In the absence of information, I felt that Ryan’s perspective and his words were just so powerful,” Van Pelt told me, “that it was something that we kept leaning into, as well as any updates we could get.”

Van Pelt said that when he was on air, he felt a sense of calm “because the gravity of the situation was as clear as it could be.”

And while Hamlin on Tuesday remained sedated in a Cincinnati hospital, Van Pelt said he was proud of the coverage ESPN provided viewers.

“We tried to be measured and tried to be respectful and do the best we could to share what we knew,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”

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