ESPN did it again on Monday night: They went too far with the tragedy/trauma porn.
Early in quarantine, ESPN was widely panned for listing the terrible circumstances and events that draft prospects had to overcome, as if it were a “fun facts” section. The network even apologized for a graphic of Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins that listed his mom’s drug addiction right after the fact his sister played college basketball.
The Monday Night Football crew didn’t even let the first quarter pass without opening their “Najee Harris was poor as a kid” folder. They went on for a bit about how he grew up homeless for much of his life, living in cars and shelters. Play by play announcer Steve Levy even threw in an anecdote about Harris sleeping on the floor when he first enrolled at Alabama because he was so used to it.
Harris found out about what Levy said and decided to make a clarification to the world. Harris tweeted out that he slept in his bed, the whole time at Alabama. Levy apologized in the replies and pledged a donation to Harris’ charity. It’s also very likely that a strongly worded email was received by the Monday Night Football research department.
Even if the anecdote was true, what purpose did it serve to be told on air? It’s one thing to deliver some inaccurate information given to you by a group you depend on for accuracy. Levy’s not at fault for that, but he deserves criticism for wrapping up an aside about homelessness with a “cute” story about how a player is so used to being homeless, that it’s an adjustment to actually have a home.
If that was true, it would be a tragedy that a young person grew up in America and had to adjust to a mattress.
Quick asides like what the Monday night crew did with Harris are maddeningly common during sporting events. A great deal of talking takes place during a three-hour broadcast, which means the commentators will have to comment on much more than just the live action. Information about the athletes provides great color for the game, especially for young players that the audience don’t know well yet.
Unfortunately, far too often the story is about athletes fighting through the adversity of poverty, abuse, or the legal system to achieve success in abundance. Those athletes deserve credit for defying the odds, but we need to remember that it’s not OK that these terrible conditions exist and must be overcome for success. The odds are against people in those situations. It’s hard for children to invest the energy they need to in school when they’re constantly worried about where they’ll sleep and what they’ll eat (or if).
A family journeying from Seattle to the Bay Area in search of a home is something that should elicit shame in people who read or hear about it. Allen Iverson’s story about growing up in a place where there was raw sewage on the floor should disgust us, not just result in a more enthusiastic applause when he gets drafted into the NBA.
When broadcasters tell these stories, or the NFL Draft runs graphics about drug-addicted mothers, it can normalize these types of circumstances. Then the narrative becomes “good for you for working hard and becoming successful,” instead of “that’s sad, we really should do something so other people don’t have to go through that.”
These stories of peoples’ rough backgrounds shouldn’t be solely for our entertainment. Harris deserves a literal ton of credit for navigating his childhood and getting to the NFL. However, before sharing inaccurate stories about people sleeping on floors, ask yourself: Does this anecdote make the story more fun or more heartbreaking, and which of those scenarios is most important here.