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ESPN Looks for the Right Tone as the N.F.L. Resumes Games

Shortly after a brief pregame tribute to Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills player who collapsed and went into cardiac arrest on “Monday Night Football,” and a live broadcast of the national anthem, ESPN’s play-by-play announcer spoke up.

“Should have all the feels right about now,” said Steve Levy, the announcer.

ESPN’s broadcast of the Saturday afternoon football game was the first test of how the broadcast and cable networks are going to handle the awkward task of covering football games with playoff implications this weekend just days after Mr. Hamlin’s frightening collapse. Mr. Hamlin, 24, has made progress — his team, the Buffalo Bills, said on Saturday that he “continues to breathe on his own and his neurological function is excellent” — but he also remains in critical condition in an intensive care unit at a Cincinnati hospital.

What would be the right tone? How would the commentators approach the broadcast?

Mr. Levy seemed to recognize early on that the broadcast of the Kansas City Chiefs-Las Vegas Raiders game was not likely to be normal.

“We hope to settle into a football game,” he said. “But it’s going to take a little while. Lots of angst and anxiousness surrounding this first snap from scrimmage.”

But in less than a minute, the Chiefs drove deep into Raiders territory and it looked like another bang-bang start to an N.F.L. game.

More on Damar Hamlin’s Collapse

  • A ‘True Leader’: As a professional football player and community mentor, Damar Hamlin has reached two of his life goals: making it to the N.F.L. and helping others along the way.
  • N.F.L.’s Violent Spectacle: The appetite for football has never been higher, even as viewers look past the sport’s toll on players’ lives. Mr. Hamlin’s collapse should force a reconsideration, our columnist writes.
  • Danger Across Sports: Mr. Hamlin’s collapse has brought attention to sudden cardiac arrest and the vulnerability of athletes from the youth leagues to the professional ranks.
  • Faith and Football: The outpouring of public piety from players and fans shows how Christianity is embedded in N.F.L. culture in a way that goes beyond most sports.

“I thought we were going to ease into the game,” Mr. Levy said, sounding surprised, a little before the Chiefs scored a touchdown.

From there, the broadcast in its early stages turned into an utterly ordinary football telecast — replays, analysis, sideline reports.

Minutes after Mr. Hamlin tweeted for the first time since Monday — “thankful for everyone who has reached out and prayed. This will make me stronger on the road to recovery, keep praying for me!” — ESPN put an image of the post on the broadcast.

“That will get about a couple of billion likes on Twitter,” Mr. Levy said, after reading the tweet.

For the most part, discussion about Mr. Hamlin was saved for the minutes before the kickoff. ESPN’s announcers emphasized the positive, pointing to the progress Mr. Hamlin has made in recent days. There was less analysis about the health risks that come with playing football.

“Yesterday, really, for the first time all week, the N.F.L. community collectively was able to exhale just a bit, maybe be able to smile just a little bit, as it appears that millions of prayers around the world have been answered,” Mr. Levy said before the game. “Damar Hamlin turning a positive corner, making progress, on his way, we all hope, to a full recovery.”

Dan Orlovsky, the analyst standing next to Mr. Levy, continued on the feel-good theme, saying that Mr. Hamlin “not only brought out the best in the N.F.L., he brought out the best in humanity.”

The game coverage mirrored ESPN’s 75-minute pregame show.

“You see us all smiling,” said the host Sam Ponder, opening the show with a panel of football analysts sitting around her in a New York studio. “We didn’t know if this is how we were going to be able to do this show earlier in the week. A collective sigh of relief after days of holding our breath.”

Ms. Ponder continued in that vein, saying, “A week that started with a lot of darkness comes to an end with so much light, so much hope and gratitude for answered prayers.”

Rex Ryan, the former head coach of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills and current ESPN analyst, began crying when he recalled Mr. Hamlin asking doctors — via pen and paper — if the Bills had won the game on Monday. The game was initially suspended and later canceled.

“He’s a dang legend,” Mr. Ryan said, his voice shaking. “Thank you. I needed it — as a dad, as a coach and as a fan of this game.”

“Lots of silver linings we’re finding,” Ms. Ponder said.

Steve Young, the former player and current analyst, was one of the few to point out that Mr. Hamlin’s collapse also underscored the violent nature of the game, calling the incident “a referendum on the game.”

“What makes the game great is the very nature of the risk that you take on the field,” he said. “That assumption of risk for players is going to be ongoing. I can tell you, it’s in the back of every player’s mind today.”

Shortly after Mr. Young made those remarks, the pregame show, like the game broadcast, moved on. There was football to discuss, and the show spent the next hour turning to run-of-the-mill game previews, player interviews, X-and-O breakdowns and analysis of potential playoff scenarios.

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