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When the Highlights Stopped Their games gone, sports media were left dealing with tragedy

Sept. 24, 2001
Sept. 24, 2001

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Sept. 24, 2001

The Week That Sports Stood Still

When the Highlights Stopped Their games gone, sports media were left dealing with tragedy

At first glance, it seemed like business as usual last Friday
night at Blondies, a popular sports bar on Manhattan's Upper
West Side. Almost all the stools and tables were occupied, the
beer was flowing, and the omnipresent televisions flickered from
their perches. The difference was that the sets were tuned to
CNN, MSNBC or another network providing news coverage of the
Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
There was no Jim Rome, no Peter Gammons, no Bob Lorenz. Sports
media had been rendered irrelevant. "Look, sports is the candy
shop of society," says Bob Ley, who anchored ESPN's SportsCenter
throughout the week. "If anybody needed to turn to SportsCenter
at times like this for comfort, he needs to reexamine his life.
People should be hugging their families or praying, not watching
us."

This is an article from the Sept. 24, 2001 issue

However, while newspapers like The New York Times could scale
back their sports coverage to reflect its relative
importance--The Times tucked its decreased number of sports
pages into the back of other sections--the same option wasn't
always available to the country's myriad all-sports,
all-the-time outlets, for whom the show, one way or another, had
to go on. Early on, those networks and websites that could
switched to a parent company's news feed. On Sept. 11, ESPN
telecast ABC News's coverage starting at 11:05 a.m. ET and
stayed with it until 6 p.m., when, after a passionate, hourlong
debate at headquarters in Bristol, Conn., over whether the
switch was appropriate, the network aired a 30-minute
SportsCenter. CNN/SI imported a CNN feed until Sept. 12 at 3
p.m., while Fox Sports Net's affiliates stayed with a Fox news
feed until that day at noon.

On sports radio, most stations quickly switched to coverage of
the tragedy; a few actually found themselves relying on sports
figures as reporters. In Dallas, KTCK-AM usually has Fox NFL
play-by-play man Pat Summerall as a guest on Tuesdays. On Sept.
11, Summerall called in from Manhattan, where he was in town to
do the Giants-Packers game, and provided a play-by-play of what
he'd witnessed during his morning walk through the city. By
Sept. 12 and last Thursday almost all sports-talk stations were
providing nonstop coverage of the tragedy using their regular
hosts. That is why, incongruously, former NFL lineman Mike Golic
of ESPN Radio interviewed Senator John McCain; Mike Francesa and
Chris (Mad Dog) Russo of New York City's WFAN discussed
antiterrorist tactics with Paul Bracken, a Yale professor; and
in Boston, WEEI's drive-time sports freak, Glenn Ordway, held
forth on how the U.S. should turn the Middle East into a parking
lot.

On television ESPN filled airtime--the network lost eight
football games, three baseball games and 10 hours of golf, among
other programming--by running a daylong SportsCenter that
focused on cancellations and stadium security. On Thursday, when
the NFL announced that it wouldn't go forward with the weekend's
games, thus triggering a domino effect on other sports, Ley was
on the air, talking by phone to Phillies manager Larry Bowa, who
was speaking from the bus that was taking his club to
Cincinnati. Suddenly Bowa told Ley that the order had come to
turn the bus around, an acknowledgement that baseball was
canceling its games, one that preceded commissioner Bud Selig's
official announcement.

With the games gone, sports news shows lost their daily bread:
previews and highlights. HBO's hourlong Inside the NFL devoted
15 minutes to the weekend's cancellations and then reran the
final episode of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Baltimore
Ravens. This week, for the first time in its 25 years, Inside
the NFL will not be aired. The syndicated George Michael's
Sports Machine was idled for the first time since the Persian
Gulf war. Across the country NFL coaches' radio shows were
canned in favor of continuing news coverage.

The week's sports coverage was, not surprisingly, largely
superfluous. As Ley said: "We were just doing our jobs, trying
to at least report the sports news and get it down, even if our
effort was only a flyspeck in history."

--Chris Ballard

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JAMES STEINBERG