by Irvin Muchnick
Stay with me here as I explain an odd side story I’m trying to run down from the January 2 ESPN Monday Night Football telecast during which Damar Hamlin nearly died.
Most people watching that night became aware of the main side story after Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and was rushed to University of Cincinnati Medical Center. That was the mid-game cancellation of the prime-time “game of the year” between Hamlin’s Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, after the National Football League had at first ordered the show to go on. Joe Buck on ESPN discussed the NFL’s initial impulse to resume play before players on both teams, who had retreated to their locker rooms, made it clear to league officials that they were in no mood to go back to banging away at each other while the world was waiting to see if Hamlin would survive. Though the NFL would deny the report it had pushed for resumption, Buck and ESPN stuck to their guns on that point.
The other side story – mine here – has gotten no attention elsewhere, so far as I know. Here’s how I described it, at 7:06 p.m. Pacific time, on WeChat, to my two sons, who were also watching live, on opposite sides of the world:
“In my feed [on a California cable system], there was an absolutely bizarre screen overlay for about 10 seconds while the talking heads were holding forth in the ESPN studio. I’ll try to describe it. I’m sure there will be a social media footprint. This was about a half hour ago. The screen overlay said something to the effect that all bets were off tonight. I didn’t catch the name of the gaming company or the exact language.”
I went on to say that I wondered if this was a fake, some kind of techno prank ripped from a script of the fictional Twilight Zone-esque futuristic series Black Mirror. My sons agreed with me that, under the grave circumstances – a kind of communal vigil at the hearth of football world – an announcement of the implications for the point spread and specialty bets, beyond tasteless, was a sorry cultural snapshot of a sport now in bed with a newly universally legal and non-stigmatized gambling industry.
I immediately perused Twitter for someone’s screen capture of what I’d seen, but to my surprise found none.
At the time, I was on deadline for completing my book, now out, about the various forms of non-concussion football health harm. I rushed out a Chapter 9, covering Hamlin’s near-fatal bout with commotio cordis and its implications for the public debate over football safety for non-professional kids.
From January 5 through January 14, I also wrote three pieces of instant analysis of the phases of the Hamlin story – all the way through his release from the hospital and likely clearance to resume his playing career – at Salon, where I’m a contributing writer. You can review those articles here, here, and here. In the first one, I included a reference to my strange sighting of a gambling disclaimer on the football broadcast. The Salon editors and I ultimately decided not to pursue that angle in my subsequent essays, since it didn’t add value. In the meantime, I went around and around on the media relations people at ESPN on what I was sure I’d seen, but couldn’t document..
Derek Volner, the director of communications for Monday Night Football, fielded my question and replied: “Are you saying pop up message came up on your screen to block a view of something? Do you have visual evidence of this? I am confused because I have heard nothing of the fact in the aftermath of all this. Please clarify.”
I explained to Volner that, in my observation, a rectangular box of text appeared on the screen, momentarily in front of Suzy Kolber and the other talking heads in the studio, with content along the lines I’ve described. I also disclaimed that I wasn’t representing that this was necessarily part of ESPN’s own production, rather than perhaps some sort of technological intervention by my cable system or another third party.
Ultimately, Volner declined to comment.
I then wrote to the media spokespersons for Comcast cable, asking if they could arrange for me to screen the archive feed. When they didn’t respond, I sent a certified letter to Comcast’s CEO. No acknowledgment.
Now, eight months later, I turn to the reader community. Does anyone have preserved video of the Hamlin vigil on ESPN that night that includes what I’m talking about here? You can ping me at @irvmuch on Twitter / X, or email me at [email protected].