There is always a fine line when reporting sports about how personal is too personal. This can be especially blurry when it comes to an event like the NFL draft when one of the biggest things to talk about is the person behind the player.
This year, ESPN caught plenty of criticism for what many fans felt like were focusing too much on the negatives in prospects’ lives. This included one graphic for the Bengals’ newest wide receiver Tee Higgins. In his “Get to know” graphic, ESPN talked about how Higgins’ mother fighting drug addiction for over 16 years.
This topic can be a soft spot for plenty of people, so it is no surprise that many fans took exception to ESPN throwing it out there. ESPN’s vice president of production Seth Markman told Cincy Boren of the Washington Post that the graphic “should not have aired.”
“It was a mistake and we apologize for it. We want our draft coverage to personalize players and, where appropriate, acknowledge the obstacles they’ve had to overcome on their journey to the NFL. This graphic lacked proper context.”
This incident went pretty viral as many we already frustrated with ESPN already, and in many eyes, this was a tangible thing they could screenshot and spread in frustration. One person who didn’t feel that way was Higgins himself, who responded to the tweet.
I’m proud of my mom for turning her life around for me and my sister! I have no problem with them showing the world that my mom is a true fighter https://t.co/11xKrf4wlV— Tee Higgins⁵ (@teehiggins5) April 26, 2020
While ESPN itself could’ve and should’ve expressed this part of Higgins life better, it is clear he is proud of the progress his mother has made. In some way, it can be inspiring for people struggling through it themselves. Higgins wasn’t shy talking about this part of his life either at the NFL scouting combine.
“Back when I was younger, I was in and out of a house with my aunt, because my mom was addicted to drugs and she was in and out of prison,” Higgins said. “I didn’t really grow up with her as much. Her boyfriend shot her twice — sorry it’s a hard story to tell — but her boyfriend shot her twice when I was in kindergarten. Just seeing her go through the struggles that she did, it was just something like no other. I don’t wish that on anybody. Now that she’s 12 years clean it’s unbelievable and all because of the man above. It’s something I hope no one goes through. Her story is why I’m here, she kept me playing football. I want to have her stress-free. I don’t want her to work anymore. I want her to live her best life.
“She’s had it worse than I have, so having a bad play, having a bad game, I think about it’s nothing compared to that. She’s at home, calling me every night, telling me make sure you pray, stay in the books so you can get these interviews down and may God be with you.”
This wasn’t the only case of ESPN bringing up particularly tragic parts parts of players lives. Many prospects had their tragedies shown maybe a little too brightly for a moment like this. Higgins’ was proud of this part of his life, but it probably shouldn’t be presented so casually with such little context.
This was the first virtual draft in the NFL’s history, and it was clear ESPN was doing things a little differently for the occasion. The best they can do now is take peoples’ concerns and criticisms into account for the future.
Markman also told Peter King of Pro Football Talk that the comments have been heard:
“I heard [the criticism]. It’s not unfair. It’s something we should self-scout for the future. It’s something we can examine. We didn’t want to be Debbie Downer, but we wanted to show how some of the players overcame major issues in their lives. Maybe how Javon Kinlaw drew inspiration from growing up homeless, or a player overcoming a father’s suicide to achieve his dream.”
It will be interesting to see how this will be handled going forward. A proper way of doing this could be to follow a procedure where you emphasize the player’s abilities and fit with the team first, and then you can have a prerecorded personal piece of the player talking about their personal stories more.
There are fans that love to hear more about players. It gives them something extra to root for. It allows us to relate to them more as people. That part isn’t for everyone, but you can’t eliminate it entirely. You just have to make sure the players are comfortable sharing the story, and that it is presented with the proper tone. It is a delicate dance that ESPN messed up this season, but hopefully they’ve learned from it going forward.