One of the most compelling and memorable stories ever to run on ESPN's Outside The Lines was a 2006 program on the death of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who left pro football to pursue a career as an Army Ranger and served several tours in combat before he died in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The OTL program was based on a four-part ESPN.com series by investigative reporter Mike Fish, who over the course of five months of reporting shed light on how Tillman died and whether there was an attempt to use his valor for political purposes. Fish interviewed nine of the 35 Rangers who were engaged with Tillman in the firefight and after his piece and the OTL special aired eight years ago, he and ESPN producer Willie Weinbaum frequently discussed how they could follow up on the original reporting. In Fish's mind, the story could advance by tracking down Tillman's shooter or shooters and be able to tell the story from their perspective and delve into the impact on their lives.
On that end, Fish continued to maintain relationships with several people involved in the original stories including Tillman family members and other soldiers in Tillman's platoon. He also kept updated phone numbers and addresses of those believed to have fired on Tillman's position. There were a few attempts to contact the shooters but none wanted to talk for publication.
Still, Fish kept at it.
Last November a serious effort was launched to locate and reach the shooters. Fish spoke with the four men believed to have fired on Tillman's position, as well as the driver of their vehicle. He spoke in some instances with relatives in hopes of convincing an individual to speak. He spoke with every shooter or relative multiple times, even through rejections.
Finally, one agreed to talk.
Next week on ESPN, that man will speak on television for the first time about what happened that day.
As part of an Outside the Lines special, Pat Tillman: 10 Years Later an Enduring Tragedy, airing on ESPN on April 22 from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. ET, former U.S. Army Ranger Specialist Steven Elliott will discuss the events that led to Tillman's death from his vantage point. The special airs 10 years to the date when Tillman was killed in Afghanistan.
"One of the things we wanted to do was not only hear from Steven Elliott but also hear from somebody who was on the other end of that tragedy that day so we could juxtapose how he feels with how Steven feels," said Tim Hays, coordinating producer of the ESPN Enterprise Unit, the feature arm of Outside The Lines.
The subject ESPN used for that juxtaposition is former Army Specialist Bryan O'Neal, who was with Tillman when he died. At the time of the shooting, O'Neal was a 19-year-old solider who Tillman had taken under his wing.
"He is the one who basically saw Pat killed, heard Pat's last words, and has been living with that all that time," Hays said in an interview with SI.com. "He is not all that forgiving for the people responsible for it. You have these two men on opposite sides of the tragedy and in a lot of ways they suffered in exactly the same way every sense.
The Elliott/O'Neal feature (fronted by reporter John Barr and produced by Weinbaum) runs 10 minute long and will debut on Outside The Lines this Sunday on ESPN. It will then re-air on April 22 during the OTL primetime special which also includes a live, in-studio interview by OTL host Bob Ley with Marie Tillman, the widow of Pat Tillman who is now the president of the Pat Tillman Foundation. Marie Tillman has since remarried and lives in Chicago with a two-year-old son, an infant, and three older stepsons.
Former Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer, who played with Pat Tillman in college at Arizona State and with the Cardinals, opens the special with an introductory essay about who Tillman was to him. Along with those mentioned above, credit Dwyane Bray, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN's television enterprise reporting unit, Chris Buckle, the deputy editor of investigations for ESPN Digital, and Enterprise Unit staffers Carolyn Hong and Arty Berko for helping to put the show together. Ley said the Elliott interview is extremely powerful and that the hour is an opportunity to re-introduce the Tillman story to a younger audience.
"It's extremely compelling stuff and proves the utter chaos of a combat situation, and the emotion legacy of any moment like this," Ley told SI.com. "It is as powerful as anyone you will ever see. The Tillman reporting is as defining of the OTL brand as anything we have done in our 24 years."
With the 10th anniversary of Tillman's death approaching, Fish cold-called the former Army specialist in early December. The initial conversation lasted 30 to 40 minutes and concluded with Elliott and Fish exchanging emails. Elliott told Fish he was leaning towards cooperating, but then in late December emailed saying he couldn't do it. Elliott said it would be too difficult, both for him emotionally and for his family. Fish asked him to take some time and we could talk again after the holidays.
They next spoke in early February, and Fish and Weinbaum offered to visit Elliott and his wife in Washington State. The reporter and producer traveled or spent time with Elliott and his family over parts of two days in mid-February. Elliott officially agreed after that meeting.
Along with the television component, ESPN.com will run new reporting on the story uncovered by Fish. According to Ley and Hays, Elliott and his wife believed that an on-camera interview could help other soldiers who have suffered post-traumatic stress and other military-related issues. The producers and staff described Elliott as a thoughtful and caring individual who wanted to shine a light on PTSD, his struggles, and to show through his own experience that there is hope. It's an hour that should not be missed.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. Universal Sports has aired the Boston Marathon since 2011 but the network will undoubtedly get its biggest viewership ever for this year's race given the massive interest following last year's horrific bombing. The network, which holds the exclusive television and online rights to the Boston Marathon, begins its coverage plan on Tuesday with the live streaming on UniversalSports.com of a Boston Tribute event honoring those affected by last year's events. There will also be a one-hour program on Universal Sports television recapping the tribute at 6 p.m. ET. That will be followed at 7:00 p.m. ET by a re-air of the 2013 race.
Come Saturday the network will air a special preview show at 4:00 p.m. ET from the finish line on Boylston Street. The race coverage on April 21 includes a pre-race show at 8:30 a.m. followed by live coverage from 9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. There will also be a post-race show at 12:30 p.m and a wrap-up show at 4 p.m. ET. To bring the event to the largest possible audience, all of the network's distribution partners are offering free previews of Universal Sports from April 14-21.
"Given the added significance of this year's race in the aftermath of last year's tragedy, it is of paramount importance to us to make sure we do this the right way that both honors the survivors, the first responders, everyone that was associated with last year's event," said Universal Sports president Scott Brown. "But we also want to celebrate this year's race and not allow last year to overshadow the event for this year."
Brown said Universal staffers realized the day after last year's marathon that this year's race would be unlike any they had ever broadcast. Universal will not air footage of the bombing during the live coverage of the 2014 race. (They have incorporated some of the footage as part of their "Run As One" dot-com video series.). "We literally started planning for broadcasting this year's race the day after last year's race," Brown said.
If the race is dramatically disrupted again and becomes a news event, Brown said coverage would likely shift to an NBC News outlet rather than Universal Sports. "But if the race is continuing, then coverage will remain on our network," Brown said.
1a. Universal said the broadcast will be shown in 175 countries and territories including the Armed Forces Network. There will be a total of 30 cameras, three mobile units, one airplane, two trucks, two motorcycles and 170 production crew for both Universal Sports and the world feed commentary.
1b. UniversalSports.com will feature a "finish line web cam" showing runners crossing the finish line. After April 21, runners can access the video on demand and search their finish line time.
2. Lynsey Hipgrave, a soccer presenter for BT Sport in the United Kingdom, will join Bob Ley and Mike Tirico as the hosts for ESPN's coverage of the 2014 World Cup. It is the first time that Hipgrave will work for a U.S. audience. Prior to BT Sport, Hipgrave worked for Al Jazeera's sports channel, where she covered the Champions League, World Athletics Championships and tennis. On Saturday I e-mailed Hipgrave for some background on how she landed the plum ESPN soccer assignment.
SI.com: How did the agreement with ESPN come about?
Hipgrave: BT Sport and ESPN have a very close working relationship at various levels on-screen and within the companies, with BT owning and operating the ESPN-branded TV channel in the UK and Ireland. So there are close links and those relationships mean that they have been aware of my work. It's why BT have been so supportive of this opportunity.
SI.com: What is the specific timeframe of the assignment?
I'll be working for ESPN for the duration of the World Cup. I fly to Rio on June 6 and leave after the final.
SI.com: Whom have you spoken with about broadcasting for an American soccer audience, and what have they told you?
I work with Steve McManaman in the UK who has told me just to be myself and do exactly what I do at home. He said the U.S. audience love watching soccer and just want to know you are credible and know your stuff. Football is our No. 1 sport in the UK and I follow it closely both as a fan and at work so hopefully that will come across. Ian Darke has also given me some great advice: He tells me American viewers now watch a lot of soccer, their kids all play it, so they understand the game just as well as European audiences.
SI.com: How do you classify yourself: Presenter, journalist, personality, something else, and why?
I am a sports presenter who trained as a journalist and studied Broadcast Journalism at Leeds University. I began my career working as a radio presenter and then transferred over to television. Hosting live sport has always been where I am most happy. As a sports host for the World Cup in Brazil, I aim to bring out the very best out of the incredible team of analysts we will have in the studio. I will try to elicit insightful responses in a conversational style that the audience can feel they are a part of. Now and again I may have to referee the odd debate; soccer is a passionate sport! It is not about me or my opinion. It is about asking the right questions and letting the experts shine!
SI.com: How much (if at all) has Rebecca Lowe of NBC Sports opened the door for British women to be front-facing broadcasters on soccer in the United States?
I used to watch Rebecca Lowe on ESPN in UK where she did a fantastic job and I'm not surprised she is having so much success in America. With soccer being a male-dominated sport. it's great to have someone flying the flag for women in the industry and Rebecca is a fantastic role model.
SI.com: If you had to pick today, who will be playing in the World Cup final on July 13th in Rio?
No European team has ever won a World Cup in South America so I think it will be two great rivals and giants of the game, Brazil and Argentina. I'm sure the hosts can replicate their success in the Confederations Cup and [coach] Big Phil Scolari has the know-how to turn the countries' confidence and hope into another trophy. Argentina have strength in depth in all departments and are playing in a familiar climate. I also think this will be the time when Lionel Messi shines for his country in the same way he has so stunningly for his club over the years. I also think Belgium will have a great run in the tournament, with players like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard they could make the semis.
3. One of the more anticipated 30 for 30 films debuts this week. Bad Boys, which examines the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s, airs Thursday at 8:00 p.m. ET. More than 40 people were interviewed for the documentary, including 10 members of the championship Pistons teams and opposing players such as Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan. In March I did a piece on the film, which you can read here. After the film, a one-hour presentation called "Grantland's Bad Boys Remix" will feature Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose hosting special guests Isiah Thomas and Doug Collins to discuss the film and the Pistons teams. I watched a screener of it on Sunday night and it's sensational. Don't miss it.
3a. "Hillsborough," the first documentary in the 30 for 30: Soccer Stories series, premieres on ESPN at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. It's tied to the 25th anniversary of the tragedy that occurred during an FA Cup semi-final soccer match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England.
4. Fueled by a matchup of unbeaten teams and some Tupac-Biggie trash-talking between the coaches, UConn's victory over Notre Dame in the women's NCAA basketball championship last week drew 4.27 million viewers, up from 3.2 million for the UConn-Louisville title game the previous year. There were also 100,000 people who watched the game on ESPN3. ESPN said highest-rated markets were Hartford/New Haven (a 29.3 rating, the market's highest overnight for a program on cable in 2014) followed by Nashville, Knoxville, Louisville, Indianapolis, Raleigh-Durham, Providence, New York, Memphis and Greenville.
4a. Here's my piece from Nashville on UConn winning title No. 9.
4b. Turner said NCAA March Madness Live set a new record for video consumption during the 2014 NCAA Tournament with 69.7 million live video streams collectively across all platforms. That was up from 49 million live video streams for the entire tournament in 2013.
4c. John Ourand of Sports Business Daily reported on the Teamcast numbers for Turner Sports during the NCAA Final Four. Per Ourand: TBS drew 7.1 million viewers for UConn-Florida; TNT (Florida Teamcast) had 3.7M and truTV (UConn Teamcast) had 851K. For the second game: TBS had 10.4M viewers for Kentucky-Wisconsin; TNT (Kentucky Teamcast) had 4.3M and truTV (Wisconsin Teamcast) had 1.6M.
4d. The contract of college basketball studio analyst Digger Phelps was not renewed by ESPN after a 20-year relationship. No doubt Phelps wants to stay on television somewhere so it'll be interesting to see if another network bites.
5. Via Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily: CBS drew a 7.8 overnight rating for final round of The Masters, the lowest since 2004 when Phil Mickelson won on Easter Sunday.
5a. The NBC Sports Group will air every NHL playoff game nationally meaning a possibility of 105 playoff games across NBC, NBCSN, CNBC (in primetime), and NHL Network. NBC said in order to televise as many as four games on a given day, the network will utilize NBC, NBCSN, CNBC and the NHL Network to carry first-round games.
6. Tony Reali, the longtime host of Around the Horn and contributor on Pardon the Interruption, is one of the most liked front-facing people at ESPN, a combination of being thoughtful with colleagues and not taking himself too seriously. I don't know Reali personally beyond a few Twitter exchanges but I've never heard anyone in Skipper Land utter a negative word about him. Sports broadcasting, with its special brew of ego, money, narcissism and talent, features a lot of behind the scenes backbiting but sports broadcasting people seemed universally happy to see Reali sign a new multi-year extension with ESPN and add a new job as a Good Morning America as a social media contributor. He will move to New York City for GMA and continue to host Around The Horn, which last I checked still rewards hipster sports writers from Brooklyn and circus clowns in Denver points for sound-bite takes on sports. As part of his new gig, Reali will give up his role on PTI. Though this ESPN Pravda interview is obviously packaged by PR and Reali's reps, Reali gives you a sense here of what he thinks of the move.
One inside baseball note: The Reali news broke in The Hollywood Reporter, fast becoming a landing spot for ESPN talent announcements along with The Wrap.com. A lot of ESPN talent is repped by Creative Artists Agency and IMG so expect to see the news pipeline from Bristol to Los Angeles continue. The Hollywood trades extend a sports television personality into a different marketplace, a win-win for talent reps and public relations staffers.
7. Sports pieces of note:
• Meet The Bag Man: SB Nation's Steven Godfrey on a man who (allegedly) pays college football players.
• Beautifully shot doc by Imagine Motion productions on a JUCO hoops team that had no gym but kept on winning.
• Via Austin Meek of The Register-Guard: Why the wrong people are talking about the NCAA, or what happens when De'Anthony Thomas shows up at an NCAA panel.
• Brian Burnsed of NCAA Magazine embedded with a group of referees during the NCAA Tournament.
• Great piece by SI's Alan Shipnuck on Tiger Woods's controversial drop at last year's Masters.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza brilliantly profiled the rise of Chris Christie.
• The Boston Globe's David Abel's has a two-part piece on the family of Martin Richard, an eight-year-old boy killed at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year. Richards' mother and sister were also injured in the attack. Here's Part 2.
• Love and Fire: The Washington Post's Monica Hesse on arson in a Virginia suburb.
•This Economist obit on financial snake oil salesman Charles Keating was sensational.
• Washington Post writer J. Freedom du Lac on what it costs to buy a Tyrannosaurus rex.
• Via The New York Times: The Toddler Who Survived, and the Cop Who Became Her Mom.
• A short examination of the methodologies of a hit man.
• One of the best charts I've ever seen by a publication. The Washington Post on how deep MH370's black box might be
8. FORTUNE reporter Patricia Sellers recently interviewed Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corp., and one of the topics that came up focused on ESPN and Fox Sports 1. The point of interest for this column:
FORTUNE: Your new Fox Sports 1 network is a very big bet?
Murdoch: Well, it's a pretty big bet. We certainly expect to lose a couple hundred million dollars for a year or two, and then we expect it to turn, and we'll gradually make it into a major alternative to ESPN. We're not going to put ESPN out of business.
FORTUNE: Why does ESPN need an alternative?
Murdoch: I think the public deserves choice.
Murdoch: ESPN is a very, very good operation, and it's a gold mine. It's an even bigger gold mine than Fox News. Not that Fox News won't get there. Fox News is going to make over $1 billion this year, and can do a lot better. No cable company in the world is going to drop it unless they want their houses burned down. [Laughter.]But ESPN has managed to ride this Monday Night Football to the point where they're charging every home in America with cable. Over $5 a head. How many people watch ESPN? A third of the public, half the public?
9. ESPN announced last week that Maria Taylor will have a number of roles on the upcoming SEC Network including the sideline reporter for Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer on the network's No. 1 college football game. She'll also serve as an analyst for volleyball and select women's basketball games and be part of a daily news & information show originating from the network's Charlotte, N.C. studios. Taylor, who played basketball and volleyball at Georgia, continues the trend of the SEC Network hiring former SEC athletes as on-air talent. That list now includes Booger McFarland (college football analyst), Greg McElroy (college football analyst), Palmer (college football analyst), Marcus Spears (college football analyst) and Tim Tebow (college football analyst).
10. CBSSports.com has hired the former Birmingham News writer Jon Solomon to be a national college football writer. He takes the slot of Bruce Feldman, who moved onto Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1.
10a. NBC Sports soccer analyst Kyle Martino has a new gig for the Discovery Channel: He'll be hosting a show from Mt. Everest.
10b. ESPN will broadcast the 2014 WNBA Draft in primetime for the second straight year. Coverage of the first round will begin tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2, followed by the second and third rounds on ESPNU from 9-10:30 p.m.
10c. The CBC, once Canada's dominant broadcaster, continues to reduce its sports broadcasting coverage and announced massive budget cuts. Awful news.
10d. SiriusXM is launching The Outfield, a new weekly sports talk show on SiriusXM OutQ, Sirius XM's 24/7 channel for the LGBT community. The live call-in show will be hosted by Eddie Robinson and will feature interviews with LGBT athletes and LGBT allies.