ESPN runs story that refutes the NFL's assertion it didn't want Bills-Bengals to continue


Joe Buck wasn’t lying. On four separate occasions, the decorated play-by-play man told ESPN viewers last Monday night that Bills-Bengals would resume after Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field.

The NFL vociferously disputed that narrative, with the league’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, calling the assertion “ridiculous” and “insensitive.” Vincent claims that resuming the game was never a consideration.

espn fires back against the nfl over bills-bengals timeline

Those competing narratives set off an unusual back-and-forth between the NFL and ESPN, with the former indicating its multibillion-dollar business partner was pedaling misinformation about one of the most sensitive moments in sports history. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league stands by Vincent’s comments, while Buck never backed off from his statements. He said he received information about the game resuming from ESPN’s rules analyst John Parry, who was in direct communication with executives at the league’s command center.

Who to believe? On Monday night, one of ESPN’s ace investigative reporters, Don Van Natta Jr., broke the tie.

Unsurprisingly, it appears as if the NFL is trying to cover for itself. Van Natta’s reporting shows the league originally wanted to keep playing.

The article, “Ground-up decision: How Bills, Bengals led the way after Damar Hamlin collapsed,” contains multiple damning quotes from an unnamed high-ranking team official about the chaos that ensued following Hamlin’s on-field collapse. The official says NFL chief football administrator Dawn Aponte, who was in Cincinnati, was fielding calls from the league executives who wanted players to return to the field.

“The Lord himself could come down, and we were not going to play again,” said the official. “She [Aponte] was getting pressure. She was not getting consistent and direct messaging that she deserved to receive.”

Four times within a 45-minute span, Buck said the Bills and Bengals would be granted five minutes to warm-up before returning to play. ESPN’s Deportes’ play-by-play man echoed Buck’s report, as did Rich Eisen, who was calling the game on Westwood One. Notably, Eisen is the NFL Network’s star anchor and most prominent on-air personality.

In an interview with Van Natta, Buck said he was surprised to read Vincent’s denials. “If what I said on national TV with the eyes of the world watching was wrong in the view of the league, I would have been corrected -- immediately,” he said. “I was not.”

ESPN pays the NFL $2.6 billion annually to broadcast “Monday Night Football.” It’s impossible to fathom that Buck, one of the most accomplished sports broadcasters ever, would spread unfounded innuendo and gossip about the league’s intentions in regards to resuming the game.

It’s just as hard to believe that the NFL wouldn’t have corrected him.

In this case, ESPN is standing up for itself.

Unlike other rights holders, ESPN, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from digging into the NFL’s never-ending supply of inner-league drama and scandals. That’s created friction between both sides. One of ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro’s first tasks on the job was healing the fractured relationship between the the NFL and his network.

Van Natta’s story doesn’t just dispute the NFL’s timeline about last Monday night: his reporting paints Vincent as incapable. The unnamed team source goes all-in on Vincent’s ability to handle his job.

"The league screws this s--- up because Troy Vincent screws this stuff up,” said the official. “That's the wrong person in the wrong position at the absolute wrong time. ... He wants to be the hero, but he will never take accountability. That's him to a T.”

The NFL keeps trying to skirt responsibility for the way it initially handled last Monday night. Van Natta’s reporting ensures that won’t happen.

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