A lesson in how not to handle important news
ESPN.com got too caught up in its own world this morning and ended up trivializing the death of a 21-year-old man.
The site’s framing of offensive tackle Aaron Douglas’ death in terms of what it meant for Alabama football’s depth chart was deeply offensive, and after some chatter around the web and the social media universe, the brief Rumor Central piece was pulled down.
ESPN’s mistake offers a good lesson: You have to keep your perspective. In order to write well, even about life on the playing field, you always have to be aware of life beyond the playing field.
It’s easy to get caught up in sports, especially the passionate world of college sports, to such an extent that it starts to seem like sports is the whole world. But it’s not. Sometimes how something affects a team or a league or a sport isn’t the important part of a story.
One of my favorite war stories from my days at the old San Francisco Examiner really was a war story. It may have been apocryphal, but I can still hear my friend Dave Reznek, maybe 45 years my senior, telling it.
It was May 1944. The Second World War was heading for its denouement. The Germans were retreating in the Soviet Union and Italy. The Allies were advancing on Rome and bombing France in preparation for D-Day. Japan was weakening in the Pacific but resisting stubbornly.
And a sportswriter, his mind focused on his beat, began his story about a track meet: “The eyes of the world will be on Modesto this weekend …”
Sports are great. They can do all sorts of wonderful things for us. They can create communities. They can teach lessons. They can help give our lives meaning and flavor.
But there are times when sports have to be kept out of the conversation, kept separate from the truly important things in life. Death is one of those times.
A death is a tragedy. If it’s the death of an active athlete, it will certainly affect a depth chart somewhere, or a pennant race or a playoff series or next week’s game. But those are separate conversations, for different times.
Just this morning, before news of Douglas’ death broke, we had an email conversation at Bleacher Report about a slide show that was being considered: The 100 most heartbreaking losses in college football history.
The original idea was to include heartbreaking game events such as Florida State’s “wide right” loss to Miami or Stanford losing to Cal on “The Play,” as well as heartbreaking life events such as the Marshall plane crash or Bear Bryant dying suddenly weeks after he’d retired.
Although the plan was to create a clear separation within the list, to make it clear we weren’t trying to equate, say, “wide right” and the Marshall crash, I and others argued that we shouldn’t combine those two lists, that even talking about “wide right” and the Marshall plane crash in the same story would be taken as equating them, all disclaimers notwithstanding.
Sports is sports and life is life. Sometimes — usually — the two intersect. That’s part of what makes sports so compelling. But there are times when sports has to take a back seat, to retire from the field for a little while.
We saw that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Sports, belying the oft-cited idea that they are some kind of national religion, simply stopped. We put them away for a while.
Something to think about whenever tragedy is in the sports news.