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How Muhammad Ali’s death was covered, plus best article links

From ESPN to The New York Times, a look at how Muhammad Ali was covered by the media

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When ESPN is at its best, when it marshals its immense resources to educate, entertain, report and make sports viewers smarter, it is an unmatched sports media organization. Such was the case during the early morning hours on Saturday when preparation and happenstance converged for the network’s covering of the death of Muhammad Ali.

The announcement of Ali’s death was made by the Los Angeles-based anchors Neil Everett and Stan Verrett at 12:28 a.m. ET Saturday. The network then forged into non-stop, commercial-free coverage from 12:28 a.m. until 4:14 a.m. ET. Think about that: No breaks in nearly four hours of coverage. ESPN then played a taped version of SportsCenter between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. before live coverage resumed from 6 a.m. to noon on Saturday.

A group of seven anchors (Bob Ley, Jeremy Schaap, Scott Van Pelt, John Anderson, Steve Levy, Everett and Verrett) on two different coasts hosted the first 5 1/2 hours of Ali coverage. Linda Cohn and Michael Eaves replaced the group above at 6 a.m. ET, followed by Sara Walsh and Randy Scott, who hosted until 12 p.m. ET.

There was much pre-planning by ESPN on how to cover Ali’s death, but planning is one thing. Execution is ultimately how coverage is judged. Schaap said he and his bosses were discussing all day Friday whether he should come to the Bristol studios as news about Ali’s health grew worse. It wasn’t until about 5:30 p.m. when he was summoned by Andy Tennant, the executive producer of Outside The Lines. At the time, Schaap was on his way to JFK airport in New York City to work on a Vin Scully story. He arrived in Bristol at 7:30 p.m. and waited.

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“Ali was the most important figure in sport, and one of the most important in the world beyond sports, in the second half of the 20th century,” Schaap said. “There is so much to say, so many stories to tell, so many angles to cover. Like so many millions of people, I’ve been thinking about, talking about and fascinated by Ali for my whole life. Personally, for me, I felt I was on set representing my father [Dick Schaap], who was very close to Ali. He first met Ali before Rome [Olympics, in 1960], he loved Ali, and I think wrote some of our finest stories about Ali. My dad’s not here to tell his stories or offer his thoughts. I just wanted to communicate, as best I could, his perspective on his favorite subject and one of his favorite people.”

Van Pelt was scheduled to be off on Friday night, but he got a call from his bosses in the afternoon informing him that Ali might not survive the night. He arrived at ESPN around 9 p.m., which is about four hours later than he’d typically head in for SportsCenter. Around midnight, Van Pelt was about to head home after taping one small feature on Ali. As he was walking out of the studio, Anderson and Schaap were running up the stairs toward the same studio. The news had come down:

The champ was gone.

Van Pelt said because of the timing of the death, it was a confusing couple of minutes figuring out who would be on the air in Bristol.

“I sat with Jeremy, and John was on the main set and we just started talking,” Van Pelt said. “I looked up at some point and in walks Bob Ley, who had turned around on his way home to take his very rightful place on a desk as well. There was no idea among us how long we’d be on the air. It was Muhammad Ali, we were going to talk and allow others to talk until it seemed like we’d covered it. Nobody was looking at watches or wondering when they could go home. Nobody wanted to. We just kept going.”

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Ley initially left ESPN at 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday when the office called and told him to come back because things were looking particularly dire for Ali. He arrived at the SportsCenter studio about 6:30 p.m. ET on a standby basis and was scouring for material, watching vintage Ali on YouTube to pass the time. “Remember, nothing had been confirmed yet, though all sources and indications were that it was extremely grave,” Ley said. “We had a front row seat doing nothing for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter while strategizing with [SportsCenter executive] Mike McQuade how to staff and approach this into the night and potentially through Saturday.”

Around midnight, Ley left ESPN for home, again, when he received a text from Robbin Dunn, an Outside The Lines producer, that Ali had died. Luckily, Ley was just 10 miles from Bristol and turned quickly around, speeding back to the office. He walked into the SportsCenter studio at 12:35 a.m. ET to join Van Pelt, Schapp and Anderson on-air. “It was probably at the moment I was screeching up an exit ramp and back to Bristol that I had a sense that the day which had begun at 4:50 a.m. for me was gonna take a while to put into the books,” Ley said.

The guests ESPN had during its Ali overnight coverage included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Arum, Dr. Harry Edwards, Evander Holyfield, Jesse Jackson, Larry Merchant, David Remnick, Al Sharpton and Janet Evans, who passed the torch to Ali at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. There were also a slew of ESPN pundits weighing in on Ali’s life, as well as live reporter coverage from the hospital in Scottsdale (Michele Steele) and the Ali Museum in Louisville (Britt McHenry and Coley Harvey). Feature content included a Schaap obituary, a William Nack essay, pieces on Ali and Howard Cosell and Ali’s relationship with his Louisville hometown.

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“Not a lot of pictures, pretty basic television,” Ley said. “Just some good stories, opinions and perspectives, grounded in the most personal of recollections. Generally, I was proud of the spirit which infused the entire enterprise. The people booking guests, the crew, our producers and directors, all of my colleagues, it was in the sprit of how we built the place along time ago, grew it and sustained it. Those moments and opportunities can be rare, and it’s a proper reminder of what I hope makes our place special.”

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The network said there were more than 100 production, programming and other personnel working on the overnight coverage from Bristol, Louisville, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Scottsdale and other locations.

“I say this with respect to my peers and friends who work in the business other places in sports television,” Van Pelt said. “Maybe someone else could have done what we did, the way we did it. But I doubt it. Either way, what anyone else did or didn’t do is of no consequence. Our only concern was doing what was required in that very significant moment. We have resources and infrastructure, and we are wired for moments like that. But my point is when that level of professionalism and ability are demanded, when they are absolutely required, they were delivered. You can rightly criticize us for things, as you could anyone, but late Friday into very early Saturday is the shining example of what we are prepared to do, what we are able to do and what we do.”

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