How do you address death in your broadcast?

On Saturday January 27th 2001, an airplane carrying members of the Oklahoma State University basketball program crashed as it was returning to Stillwater following a game at Colorado. A friend of mine, Pat Noyes, was on the Cowboys coaching staff and he was on that plane. He and the other nine people on board died.

As you would imagine, it was the dominant news story that day, and not just in sports. It led all of the national newscasts. My ESPN Radio show was on that night. Hosting it was the hardest thing I ever had to do on the air. I met Pat when he was a student at McPherson College (KS). I was the Voice of the Bulldogs. We played pickup ball together in the Bulldogs gym. Holding it together while discussing the crash, and discussing a friend, in front of a national radio audience was tough. My voice cracked more than once. Even now, I’m getting chills as I pound out these words on my keyboard.

I bring this up because twice in the past month I have had sports broadcasters ask me a very unique yet relevant question.

When a member of the team that you cover has died, how do you address it in your play-by-play broadcast?

In one instance, two members of the local team had died in an auto accident since the end of the previous season. In the other case, a young man passed away from an injury suffered in a game just the week before.

I relied on compassion and common sense to form my reply. It’s the same thing I suggested the broadcasters do on the air.

Here is exactly what I said:

  • There is no wrong way to show respect as long as it comes from the heart.
  • During your play-by-play broadcast, let circumstances dictate how much air-time you give to the story. As a play-by-play broadcaster, you are a reporter. If a team wears a commemorative patch on their jerseys, report it. If they leave an empty seat on the bench, report it. If the public address announcer requests a moment of silence, report it.
  • It is a relevant topic in your pre and post-game interviews. While it can be hard to address, you also can’t act like it didn’t happen.

I’m sure there are other valuable pieces of advice for such a unique situation. If you have ever had to deal with death on air, I know our STAA community would appreciate you sharing your experience. Please take a moment to post them in the comment section below.