“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 en