Tuesday December 1st, 2015

How difficult is it to work on a piece where the subject is a dying child? How do you tell the story of that child’s life with honor and poignancy? How can you be respectful of grieving parents while reporting an accurate piece? Those were some of the questions facing Kristen Lappas, an associate producer in the features unit for ESPN, as she reported and edited a piece for College GameDay last week on five-year-old Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who died Nov. 23 after a 15-month battle against Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a rare brain cancer.

Despite his short life in years, Chad Carr had a massive impact on the Michigan community. The family went public with Chad’s illness, sharing updates on social media and helping raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to find a cure or a treatment. A slogan inspired by his fight—“ChadTough”—trended on Twitter in the U.S. for hours after he passed away. On College GameDay this past Saturday, ESPN ran a six-minute, 16-second video feature on Chad’s life, produced by Lappas and narrated by reporter Gene Wojciechowski. You will not find a more heart-wrenching and thoughtful sports feature this month.

“This was definitely the most difficult assignment I have ever worked on at ESPN,” said Lappas, who has worked at ESPN for six and a half years and began her career at the company as a production assistant on GameDay. “The past week has been an extremely emotional one for both Gene and I.

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“Obviously, after getting to know Chad and his family, your heart aches for what they are going through. But you try to put those emotions into producing the story and work as hard as you can to make sure that the final product helps to remember and pay tribute to Chad’s life and his legacy while also helping to raise awareness for Diffuse Instrinsic Pontine Glioma. It’s also incredible how a little boy was able to teach a football team and its coach the power of love and the true meaning of toughness. These are the stories that matter in sports in my opinion, and so I wanted to do my absolute best to do that justice in the feature.”

After Chad’s mother, Tammi Carr, posted on Facebook on Nov. 12 that Chad was entering hospice care, Lappas and Wojciechowski thought it was important to tell Chad’s story as soon as possible. ESPN contacted the family through Michigan sports information director David Ablauf on Nov. 17 and the family agreed to do the story the next day, with the hopes that a platform such as GameDay would help their endeavor to raise awareness for DIPG. Lappas and Wojciechowski filmed with the Carr family on Nov. 20-21 and interviewed Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and several Michigan players on Nov. 22. The producer and reporter then spent the next week scripting and editing the story. When Chad died last Monday, Lappas and Wojciechowski had to adjust how they were going to tell his story, which Lappas said was very difficult and emotional. There are many personal touches in the pieces, including shots of Christmas being celebrated early and home movies of Chad.

Carr throwing out the first pitch at a Tigers game this summer.
Carr throwing out the first pitch at a Tigers game this summer.
Icon Sportswire via AP Images

“When we heard the Carrs were making Christmas happen early for Chad this year, we immediately knew we needed to start the piece with this,” Lappas said. “Christmas is such a special time for so many families, and we knew that the Carr family celebrating on Nov. 14 so that Chad would be able to experience one more holiday would resonate with the viewer and allow them to connect with the Carr family. We walked into their home and it truly felt like Christmas, not only the lights, but the tree, the ornaments and decorations, and that feeling of warmth and love in their home. We tried our best to capture this atmosphere in the open of our story.

“I have worked on the My Wish series the past two summers, and even with those past experiences under my belt, there is never really a way to prepare for going into a situation with a sick child. But I always try to do as much research ahead of time on the family and the situation in order to really try to understand what they are going through.

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“I spent hours on the Pray for Chad Carr Facebook page looking at photos, videos and posts of Chad and his family from the last 15 months. When I got to the Carrs’ home, Gene and I spent two hours before the interviews sitting and talking with the Tammi and Jason [Chad’s Dad] and spending time with Chad. It is hard not to feel connected to such an amazing family. One of the primary reasons they agreed to do the story was to raise awareness for this awful disease, and so they were very open to talking about their experiences. Tammi was also a feature producer at Turner Sports before marrying Jason, so we had something in common right from the start."

Lappas said that she finished editing the feature about 12 hours before it aired on GameDay. That morning, she woke up early and drove from Bristol to her parents’ house outside of Philadelphia. She then watched the piece with her mother, father and boyfriend.

“All four of us were in tears by the end,” Lappas said.

THE NOISE REPORT

1. For my Monday column I facilitated a roundtable with four reporters who cover the Sixers full-time on what it’s like to cover a team that has lost 28 straight games in pro sports. The Sixers play the Lakers on Tuesday and a loss would break the record for the most losses to open an NBA season (19).

1a. After the panel with the four reporters above—all from traditional outlets covering the Sixers—I asked Sean O’Connor, the site manager for SB Nation’s Liberty Ballers blog, to offer some thoughts about the roundtable. His words are below.

Writing about the Sixers online at Liberty Ballers is a lot different than it is for a newspaper audience. Given the beat reporters’ audience and what they have to work with, their jobs are almost impossible. I do not envy them. Liberty Ballers faces some of the same challenges in creating fresh content, but our platform and how blogs operate give the site a few advantages in covering the team that the beats aren’t afforded, namely a devoted, younger audience with a thirst for all-angles coverage. As Dan Gelston said, relating to the current product, fans have mostly tuned out. Sixers fans want to know about what all their future picks could be, and Liberty Ballers is in a better position to provide that than the beat reporters who are with the team and have to focus on current on-court activity. 

Something alluded to by Tom Moore and Bob Cooney separately is that there’s a fairly clear divide between the people who are in agreement with “The Process” and people who aren’t. There’s the “Cult of Hinkie” side and the “Scam Hinkie” side. And there’s very little in between. It’s very much an embrace-debate era topic: polarizing with very little nuance. Covering the Sixers can be exhausting, because paired with the losing is a never-ending debate about what the team is doing as the losses mount.

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Fortunately, we have a large staff (17 people) to break up the monotony of losing 28 games in a row and 18 to start the season. One advantage of having multiple people cover games is that it keeps the overall coverage fresh. One writer may dwell on the positives, the incremental progress (even if at a snail’s pace) that the team has made so far this season. Another may express frustration in the lack of simple execution, even if the writer is supportive of the team as a whole. The beat reporters do not have that variety going for them, plus they have to maintain daily relationships with Sixers PR and the players. Sixers PR does not grant us access for home games this season, so we don’t face that challenge of dealing directly with the players and coaches either on a regular basis.

Newspapers and blogs also have different audiences to cater to. The site’s audience, as part of SB Nation’s network, skews younger and is also more supportive of the team’s general direction. You would think losing would negatively impact readership, but our audience has grown significantly over the past two to three seasons. There is a devoted group of Sixers fans committed to seeing Hinkie’s experiment through, which has created a market for coverage about the team’s future. Similar to what Tom said in your article, the thirst for game coverage isn’t really growing. It’s everything else—commentary, draft prospect profiles, etc.—that’s really driving readership at the local level. People are anxious to see what happens going forward and are really excited about what the future holds, even if the present is historically awful.

2. I reported on Monday that Rachel Nichols is returning to ESPN to work as an anchor and reporter. She is expected to anchor her own program, contribute to SportsCenter and other platforms (including E:60) and work on issue-oriented journalism. She will start at ESPN in early 2016. The story can be found here.

3. Episode 31 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who has been with that network since 1995. Bilas is now featured on ESPN’s game and studio coverage, including ESPN’s Saturday Primetime game-of-the-week telecasts in 2015.

In this episode, Bilas discusses how he prepares for a broadcast, how he views the role of analytics in basketball broadcasting, how he navigates being an advocate for his sport but not being a cheerleader, his Twitter philosophy, how he approaches commentary on Duke (his alma mater) and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, how often he hears from NCAA officials, his appearing on The White Shadow as a high schooler, spending time with the rapper Jeezy, how he projects LSU freshman Ben Simmons to the pros and and more.

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.

4. Pete Medhurst, the play-by-play voice for Navy basketball since 2008, had a memorable broadcasting experience on Nov. 25. Medhurst called a Navy-UMBC game, which involved his son, Cody Joyce, a 6'8" senior forward who plays for UMBC. “After you get over the initial smiles of seeing your son playing on the floor, you realize, or at least I did, he’s just number 42 on the other team,” said Medhurst. “Do you smile when he does something good? Sure. But it’s name and score, and you try to keep it as normal as possible. I have a great color man in Mike Heary and you allow him to elaborate on the quality of play. Are you a proud dad? Absolutely. But the mission is still the same—it’s about the two teams playing.”

4a. On Monday, Awful Announcing debuted TheComeback.com, a sports and pop culture site. Check it out here.

4b. SI’s Alex Wolff has a new book out—The Audacity of Hoop—on basketball’s influence on the identity of President Obama.

5. MLB Network will provide more than 35 live hours of coverage over five days at the 2015 MLB Winter Meetings headquarters in Nashville next week, including interviews with managers and general managers on five different on-site shows. The coverage begins with MLB Tonight on Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. ET.

5a. The Monday Night Football game between the Browns and Ravens was the 500th MNF assignment for stats and information guru Steve Hirdt, the executive vice president of Elias Sports Bureau. Hirdt joined the MNF crew (then part of ABC Sports) on Sept. 13, 1982 and has the longest tenure of anyone—in front of or behind the camera—in the 46-year history of the series.
 

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