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Damar Hamlin and the Existential Crisis of ESPN ‘Monday Night Football’

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The business breaks were a mixed blessing — a respite for the broadcasters, whose own emotions understandably kept tumbling out, but a lousy time to peddle light beer, and an inconvenient reminder that within the absence of reports about Hamlin’s condition (which might not be forthcoming anytime soon), and within the absence of an actual football game (which no decent person was within the mood to resume), this promoting money was the one reason the cameras were still rolling. We were, in other words, watching a young man’s near-death be commodified in real time. The second time Buck repeated some variation on the phrase “there’s nothing left to say at this point,” it sounded less like a directive to the production truck — let another person flail for some time — and more like a reproof to the audience. Why are you continue to watching? Why haven’t you modified the channel? What type of person still cares a few football game now?

This was uncharted territory, the guy on the tv roughly telling us to show off the tv. The very program itself was having an existential crisis. There was no game to indicate, no update on Hamlin’s condition to share, no cutting to black. The moment Joe Buck said “CPR,” “Monday Night Football” was over. Only it couldn’t end.

Just 250 miles across Ohio, in a distinct sports universe separated only by a couple of TV channels, Donovan Mitchell of the N.B.A.’s Cleveland Cavaliers was pouring in 71 points against the Chicago Bulls. It was the best single-game total in 17 years, and it makes Mitchell considered one of only seven players in N.B.A. history to top 70. Mitchell is powerful and balletic, with a 6-foot-10 wingspan that has earned him the nickname Spida; the Cavaliers, thanks largely to him, will most certainly reach the playoffs for the primary time since 1998 without LeBron James on the roster. On the emotional spectrum of sports fandom, Mitchell’s night was the polar opposite of the tableau in Cincinnati: jubilation within the stands, gobsmacked teammates on the bench, escalating delirium within the announcers’ voices. When the Cavaliers won, in extra time, Mitchell’s teammates kept drenching him with water bottles, as if to place out flames, after which all of them posed together for a photograph with the night’s hero.

This was all the reasons we watch sports. However it didn’t merely occur on the identical night as Hamlin’s injury; the 2 events unfolded in lock step, over the identical hour of real time. On social media, many fans experienced each dramas without delay. As I traded texts with friends about Mitchell’s swelling point total — 58! 66! 69! 70! — I kept toggling apps and scrolling through Twitter, where stats in regards to the basketball game sat alongside uninformed speculation about blunt-impact cardiac arrhythmias and ghouls blaming Covid vaccinations for Hamlin’s collapse. This wasn’t just any regular-season N.F.L. game either: The Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals are Super Bowl contenders, and their matchup had major playoff implications, and it was “Monday Night Football,” a multibillion-dollar American institution. Then, suddenly, by swift consensus, the sport didn’t matter in any respect. It was almost generous of Skip Bayless, the Elon Musk of sports trolls, to step up and tweet a take about not postponing the sport abominable enough to offer all the platform someone to unite against in disgust. (He even managed to offend Shannon Sharpe, the ex-N.F.L. tight end with whom Bayless hosts Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed,” enough for Sharpe to face him up for his or her broadcast the following morning.)

But social media also created avenues for catharsis. Hamlin was an unheralded sixth-round pick coming out of the University of Pittsburgh, near his hometown, McKees Rocks, Pa. He cracked the Bills’ starting lineup only in September, after the first-string safety Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury and had to depart the stadium in an ambulance. In 2020, Hamlin arrange a GoFundMe to support a toy drive back home in McKees Rocks, and as of that Monday afternoon, just before the sport, he’d raised about $2,500. By Friday, the helplessness all of us appeared to be feeling on Hamlin’s behalf had poured greater than $8 million into his toy drive.

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