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ESPN's Holly Rowe inundated with support during bout with cancer
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ESPN's Holly Rowe inundated with support during bout with cancer
Sunday February 14th, 2016

When ESPN reporter Holly Rowe was wheeled out of surgery last week after doctors removed a cancerous tumor in her chest, a malignant tumor under her right arm and 29 additional lymph nodes, she found something waiting for her upon returning to her hospital room:

244 text messages.

One of the very first texts came from Buddy Hield, the senior shooting guard and Player of the Year candidate from Oklahoma.

“My Mom and I are so upset and we are praying for you,” Hield texted Rowe.

Hield was part of a boldfaced group of texters that included Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, Texas men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and star forward Breanna Stewart, Turner Sports personality Charles Barkley, Oklahoma men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger, NBC Sports anchor Dan Patrick and WNBA players Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Brittany Griner, among many others. LSU football coach Les Miles and Good Morning America host and former ESPN anchor Robin Roberts called with encouragement. South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley and her team posted video support on Twitter. Seattle Storm and former Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd sent Rowe flowers. 

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Rowe has also been inundated with well-wishes from her ESPN colleagues. When she first woke up in the hospital, the first thing she saw was a flower arrangement from her college football colleagues (announcer Brad Nessler, analyst Todd Blackledge, producer Phil Dean, director Scott Johnson) and college basketball colleagues (announcer Brent Musburger, analyst Fran Fraschilla, producer Scott Gustafson and director Mike Roig.) There were tweets from Jay Bilas, Chris Fowler, Scott Van Pelt, emails from Kirk Herbstreit and texts from Dick Vitale. One of the best people in the sports media business—you won’t find anyone in the business who doesn’t speak warmly of her—Rowe said she has felt an enormous amount of love after she announced publicly on Feb. 2 that she has a rare form of melanoma cancer that has spread through her body. It is her second bout with cancer, including another cancerous tumor in her chest removed last May.

The ESPN reporter said that her broadcast colleague Doris Burke got the V Foundation involved in her health issue. They got her an appointment with one of nation’s top experts at UCLA. Rowe said her cancer (desmoplastic melanoma) is very rare. The latest update on her health is positive.

“It was a pretty painful and massive procedure and I won’t be wearing tank tops soon,” Rowe said. “But all 29 lymph nodes came back with no additional cancer and that was great news and promising.”

The next step is meeting with doctors, followed by the likelihood of radiation and a clinical trial of immunotherapy, which is the use of medicines to stimulate a patient’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively.

“It sounds daunting but I think it is a pretty good prognosis and I am very hopeful,” Rowe said. “The doctors think I am ridiculous. They tell me I have cancer and my next question is, “Well, when can I go back to work?” I feel good, but I have to remind myself I am not totally normal right now.”

Rowe will take the next couple of weeks off from ESPN with the goal of returning for Kansas at Texas men’s basketball on Feb. 29. She then plans to work the Big 12 men’s tournament and the women’s NCAA tournament before getting radiation and immunotherapy in April. She said ESPN has been terrific about reworking her schedule and cited many ESPN-ers, including high-ranking executives, for personally reaching out to her. “They care about me as a person and I can’t thank them enough,” Rowe said. “Just sweet and loving messages.

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“When I found out I found cancer for a second time, I told my family, a couple of close friends and then I called Shelley Smith. It’s so funny. I don’t know Shelley that well but everybody always confuses us. People call me Shelley and call her Holly and we have developed a funny bond as TV sisters. I called her and said what was going on and she has been unbelievable. I can text her and say, “I feel evil today. My arm hurts, this is draining.” And she is like, “here’s how I felt, here is what I did.” Another sweet person who called me was Robin Roberts, who I don’t even know that well. People who have gone through this know it’s scary and have reached out. Some days I wake up and go, “Oh, gosh, I have cancer.” Then other days I forget about it. It’s helpful to have other people walk you through it.”

Said Smith, in an email from Toronto: “She is one tough cookie, I'll tell you that. So many people have asked me about her. She and I have gotten close—one of the many nice things that have happened in such a crummy situation.”

Rowe described hearing from people she has covered over the years akin to being an actor in a play and breaking the invisible wall to look at the audience.

“These are people who don’t know much about me personally but on a basic human level they are concerned about you,” she said. “What has blown me away is that you feel like this is just a job but then comes this recognition that they appreciate you as a human being. Les Miles found out earlier than most because I was at LSU for a game and let people know I would not be at Signing Day because of surgery. He called me five or six times the day before Signing Day to ask when I was going in and what he could do. Just unbelievable sweetness.”

As part of an SI Media Podcast that will be released on Monday, Rowe discussed her health along with many other topics including what it’s like for qualified over-40 women in the sports media to lose jobs to younger candidates.

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“We call this the ‘hot factor’ and it is real,” said Rowe, 49. “I have looked at it across the landscape and I don’t think it is only for women. I think men are suffering from some of it. A lot of the guys on our air are smoking hot. TV is a visual medium and I am not naive to that. I do worry about it, though. I am always too chubby. I have been on thyroid medication for years and issues like that and I wish the public knew how hard I am working out so I’m not chubby. But at the end of the day I have to be myself and this is the best version of myself today and I hope it is good enough. I think I am good at my job, I love my job, and I think my passion and commitment to do good stories I have to believe will win the day.

“We are in a sports demo where our average age of viewers is 18 to 45, so part of all this is who bosses think is watching and what bosses think people want to see. That is a fear. One time I got replaced on an event for someone who was younger and hotter. I won’t say who because it is someone high profile. I was feeling in the tank. I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking, “I just got replaced by Barbie and she’s not as good as me.” So my son, trying to be helpful said, “But mom you are still cute enough to be Barbie’s mother.” Well I thought that was the cutest thing anyone had ever said to me because I am Barbie’s mom now. But I don’t want to hate on people who are younger and hotter just because they are young and hot. There are some very good young and hot people out there. I just don’t want that to be the only consideration. The quality of work should always be the top consideration. I don’t know if it is but I hope it is.”

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Last week ESPN public editor Jim Brady examined the dissolution of Grantland, a long-awaited column that drew mixed reviews as Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz chronicled here. Brady’s principle takeaway from the piece was the following: “In talking to a number of ESPN insiders and former Grantland staffers, it appears that ESPN’s shifting focus, unanticipated staffing challenges and a culture clash between Grantland and ESPN led to the site closure. To varying degrees, each of these issues emanated from the May 8 announcement that ESPN would not renew the contract of Grantland founder Bill Simmons.”

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You should read Brady’s piece and ask yourself whether all your questions were answered. This much is clear: He had a very tough assignment given many Grantland staffers won’t talk publicly, including those who were at the site during its final days. He also ran into issues with ESPN executives and we’ll get to those in a minute. Last week when SI requested an interview with Marie Donoghue, the executive vice president, global strategy and original content for ESPN and the direct boss for Bill Simmons, regarding the subjects of the dissolution of Grantland, upcoming plans for the Undefeated, and the nexus between them as ESPN microsites, an ESPN PR spokesperson “respectfully declined” the request and said, “We are finished talking about Grantland.”

That’s certainly the network’s prerogative—I have enjoyed talking to Donoghue in the past and would have enjoyed this as well—in the same way any coach can refuse an ESPN reporter or radio personality’s inquiry (and then be subject to said ESPN staffers blasting them for declining the Worldwide Leader In Interview Requests).

• DEITSCH: Editor-in-chief Kevin Merida talks ESPN’s Undefeated

But what was particularly frustrating about this public editor piece was the lack of original quotes from ESPN execs such as John Skipper, the network’s president, Donoghue, John Kosner, ESPN’s digital leader and others. Brady clearly was no-commented in some parts and directed to previous statements elsewhere. That onus is squarely on ESPN management and what seems to be a continued devaluing of the public editor position from the days of the best ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber. Brady, as per his ESPN contract not to talk to non-ESPN entities, declined comment for this piece to SI.

As I’ve always said, I admire ESPN has a public editor and I subscribe to the notion that all good news orgs should have one including Sports Illustrated. But readers are left this as a takeaway: ESPN’s executives not commenting on the record to its public editor for the Grantland piece derails the whole idea of having a public editor. It cuts the position off at the knees.

“It feels like, at a basic level, there’s a responsibility to set an example and engage with the public editor,” said Jason Gay, The Wall Street Journal’s fine sports columnist. “If you have one and engage with them only when you want to, it’s the definition of window dressing. Why should anyone else at ESPN bother to address a public editor query if their bosses won’t?”

DEITSCH: Chris Connelly on went right, wrong with Grantland

I reached out to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the New York Times and the best I’ve ever seen in the role of ombudsman given her real-time work on multiple subjects, on the topic of a news organization not being accessible to their public editor. Said Sullivan: “I’ve never had the experience of an NYT editor saying ‘I’m not going to talk to you.’ That’s been very important.”

It’s one thing for ESPN PR to flit away a Sports Illustrated reporter over-curious about Grantland. It’s another thing for an organization to let previous statements from executives to Vanity Fair stand when your public editor inquires about a topic near and dear to your audience. The bottom line: Last week was a very bad one for the public editor position at ESPN. Hopefully, the Kremlin stuff will end. If not, the company should eliminate the position for good and end the public charade.

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1a. SportsCenter continues to experiment in finding ways to attract and retain audience in a declining ratings environment and one of the ways the brand has tried to distinguish itself—with both success and failure—has been to send its anchors on the road to broadcast from the venues of events. On Saturday morning SportsCenter succeeded on multiple levels with a terrific spot from Hampton University, as the college became the first men’s lacrosse team at a historically black college or university to play at the Division I level. The coverage included features on the program, a Chris Connelly interview with National Lacrosse Hall of Famer Jim Brown and snapshots of campus life on the Virginia campus. This was a smart idea, executed well, and it’s this kind of stuff that convinces me that all is not lost at ESPN.

2. Turner Sports announced last week that Marv Albert had signed a long-term contract extension with the network. As part of the agreement, Albert will continue to be the lead voice on Turner’s NBA game coverage, including the NBA All-Star coverage and the NBA playoffs. One thing Albert will give up as part of this deal is calling the NCAA tournament for CBS and Turner. A Turner spokesperson said the NCAA replacement for Albert would be announced closer to the tournament. Brian Anderson and Ian Eagle would be the logical candidates. 

Said Turner Sports executive producer Craig Barry: “I can’t recall a play-by-play announcer as closely identifiable with a league as Marv is to the NBA.”

2a. Golden State’s win over Oklahoma City on Feb. 6 averaged 3,230,000 viewers, the most-watched regular-season NBA game on ESPN since Oct. 31, 2014 (Cleveland-Chicago in an opening week game).

2b. Sportsnet’s Michael Grange profiled Turner Sports NBA reporter Craig Sager.          

2c. The MMQB’s ​Jenny Vrentas had an excellent long-form Q&A with Mike Carey on the ref-turned-broadcaster’s rough two seasons at CBS as an officiating expert and the state of officiating in the NFL today. “In two years on CBS, there is not a game that doesn’t go by without criticism,” Carey said. “I don’t live in a vacuum. But I think about how well I perform on each play, then what I try to do is analyze what I need to correct, and I try to correct it. No different than anything else I do.”

3. Episode No. 41 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Turner Sports host Ernie Johnson, who hosts Inside the NBA as well as NBA Fan Night on NBA TV.

In this episode, Johnson discusses navigating a studio show that is mostly ad-libbed, his views on race, how they developed and the racial dynamics on the set of Inside the NBA, when he knew Charles Barkley would be good on television, how he prepares for hosting Inside the NBA, why Kevin Garnett would be a great studio host as long as he avoided f-bombs, what he learned from his father Ernie Sr., a longtime MLB broadcaster, his surviving non-Hodgkin lymphoma and much 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 Deitsch.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• From ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham: The inside story behind the NFL’s wild, bitter return to L.A. 

• From Scott Cacciola of the New York Times: Three days with the Saint John Mill Rats of Canada’s National Basketball League 

• Bruce Arthur profiled NBA TV’s The Starters and how they grinded to mainstream notice 

• SI’s Alex Prewitt examines how NHL goalies deal with the very real issue of what to do when you need a bathroom trip 

• ESPN’s David Shoemaker writes about Daniel Bryan’s retirement

• Vice Sports reporter Ed Zitron, on spending like a drunken sailor at the Super Bowl 

Non sports pieces of note:

• Via The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova: How People Learn to Become Resilient

• From Lisa Rab of Charlotte Magazine: A working mother fights to give her kids a better life in a city where that’s next to impossible 

• Via The Marshall Project: Why African-Americans don’t trust the courts—and why it matters 

• From Craig Calcaterra: What do Iran, China and the City of Cleveland have in common

• From the excellent data journalist Mona Chalabi: The age you first have sex is affected by race, gender + your mom’s education 

• Seventeen years after Columbine, the mother of one of the killers finally tells her story

• From The Atlantic’s James Fallows: How America Is Putting Itself Back Together

• From Vox’s Ezra Klein: “This is the harshest thing I’ve ever written about a major presidential candidate. But it’s deserved.”

• Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Bobby Kennedy, is still alive and still in jail. From The Washington Post

• What happens when a Supreme Court justice dies in an election year 

• The nexus between Emmett Till and Tamir Rice

• Watch 1,400 Workers Lose Their Jobs At Once—Because Their Jobs Are Going To Mexico

5. Duke meets North Carolina in basketball for the 241st time on Wednesday and prior to broadcasting the game, SiriusXM College Sports Nation will present a special hour-long radio documentary that will examine the history, intensity and emotions of the Duke-UNC rivalry. 

5a. The Hollywood Reporter had news on who will be running Bill Simmons’s upcoming HBO show

• FS1 changing Fox Sports Live after two years of lackluster ratings

5b. Bob Costas will host “Rod Carew: The Fight of His Life” as part of a new episode of MLB Network Presents. The show premieres Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. ET and will feature Carew’s thoughts on his near-death experience and his arduous recovery process.

5c. The excellent TSN journalist Rick Westhead examined the legal showdown between the National Hockey League and more than 100 of its former players suffering the long-term effects of multiple concussions for CTV. Here’s the link.

5d. HBO Sports debuts a five-part series this week on Gonzaga basketball titled: Gonzaga: The Road to March Madness. The first episode airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, with episodes debuting subsequent Tuesdays. The finale will air March 15, the first day of the 2016 NCAA tournament.

5e. NBA Hall of Fame writer Jack McCallum posted his Top 50 players all-time.

5f. Please read this about hockey journalist Ira Podell.

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