On Friday, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross sent a memo to his staff. It read in part:
-for the time being, we should not be tweeting about sports until further notice (the Talent Office will communicate when tweeting about sports can begin again)
-refrain from using ‘shooter' or other words which are not appropriate given the tragedy
Later, Gross emailed his staff to say that tweeting could go back to normal at noon today, so it seemed logical to expect the moratorium on sensitive language to last at least that long.
But how can you talk about sports without using word like "shooter"? Which player on the basketball court is the one that attempted a field goal, if not the shooter? The attempter? As it turns out, ESPN decided that they had given themselves an impossible task, or just fell off message almost immediately. We count 19 instances of the specific word "shooter" being broadcast on ESPN itself—we didn't check its many other TV, radio and web branches—between the memo on Friday and the end of the night on Saturday. The first came at about 8:50 p.m. on Friday, from Mike Tirico, during the broadcast of the Celtics-Rockets game. While this was after a conspicuous absence—no "shooter" nearly the entire day on Friday—it seems that ESPN came to understand, as many readers and commenters did instantly upon reading the memo, that trying to call a basketball game without using gun metaphors is essentially impossible.
Football announcers should have found it easier to comply with the temporary rule—the inherent violence of football notwithstanding, there's a little less in the vernacular to remind people of weaponry. Unless, of course, you're announcing a game featuring the Nevada Wolf Pack (like yesterday's New Mexico Bowl), because Nevada's coach developed a new kind of offense, and it's been called the "pistol offense" since 2004, and has become fairly acclaimed under that name.
As you can see above, in their "small way of showing respect to the tragedy," ESPN announcers Bob Wischusen and Danny Kanell chose to rename the offense the "Nevada formation." It's artless, gentle to the point of condescending, and probably ineffective: anyone that's familiar with the pistol formation likely heard "pistol formation" and thought about Newtown every time Wischusen and Kanell said "Nevada formation," not just as an abstraction but as something so grave and scarring it couldn't be referenced in even the most oblique terms. And isn't every formation Nevada lines up in a Nevada formation?
For a better or worse, ESPN couldn't quite stick to the restrictions: Here is Tom Hart, announcing a play out of the "shotgun" formation in the Idaho Potato Bowl, which directly followed the New Mexico Bowl in ESPN's Saturday lineup:
And on Saturday morning, before either bowl game, SportsCenter aired some Peyton Manning highlights that also mentioned the shotgun formation. Surely, it was the straw that broke the camel's back for many people that were just barely holding up under the strain of Friday's events.
If the original memo holds true, ESPN will be back to normal today for its coverage of the NFL.