This past Monday was an unusually sad day in the world of sports, having lost two verifiable stars. But the passing of golf legend Arnold Palmer and Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez are almost impossible to compare, which led to an interesting day of coverage for sports broadcasters.
Palmer was 87, having lived an incomparable life. He’d been the recipient of honors from world leaders including the President of the United States. He was so famous, a non alcoholic drink was named for him. Palmer was one of the greatest ambassadors of anything ever, having used golf as a platform for business, culture and inclusion.
So on Monday, when news of his passing hit the airwaves, the typical coverage of this type of loss began, reverential. Stories of his generosity circulated. Presidents put out statements. Industry leaders who run golf manufacturing businesses to players who are playing the fairways he helped make famous couldn’t help but glow in praise for his acumen ability to remain relevant for multiple decades.
There seems to be very few industry leaders who can be Arnold Palmer. Widely respected and largely positive figures. And so the role of the hosts who talk to those who knew him is to listen and stay out of the way of the stories. The goal here is to allow the viewers to get an even better understanding of a man anyone who follows sports knew and knew intimately well.
On the same day, these same hosts were given the shocking news of a boating accident that took the life of one of the brightest baseball stars, 24 year old Jose Fernandez. The Marlins pitcher had unsuccessfully attempted to flee Cuba 3 times before finally succeeding. He had recently become a United States citizen. Not only was he a survivor of political burdens, he had overcome a devastating injury early in his professional career. Fernandez had season ending ligament surgery in his pitching arm. But like his will to make a better life for himself, Fernandez came back to be as if not more dominant.
His death clearly was not foreseen so the shock level is different. And as we started to learn from those who played with and knew him, Fernandez had a particular joy and love for the game that makes you wonder if he might have grown into an Arnold Palmer like role, an ambassador for baseball and life in a free country.
It was clear that he was a positive example for the communities of Cuba, South Florida, and baseball fans for that matter. Clearly losing anyone that age, let alone someone who stood as an example of perseverance and pride.
The role of the hosts here is simple as well, listen. But listen intently and really resist the urge to interrupt anyone. Shock and grief which were clearly on display as insiders and friends spoke of Jose’s impact on their lives is not communicated with the standard pacing. You must be able to resist the urge to move this subject forward but allow the emotion to display itself in organic fashion.
I faced this issue while covering the Washington Redskins a decade ago when star safety Sean Taylor was murdered in his house by some men who invaded his home not expecting him to be there. The shock is particularly complicated for the teammates, the fans, the management. And honestly for me the reporter. It was the only time in my career that I couldn’t resist crying on air and I really didn’t think I knew Sean very well. He kept the media at arms length based on some early reporting of his background which at times portrayed in him in not positive light. In this case, I’ll never forget how much listening I had to do. I finally learned who he was, what he stood for and how much the community would feel the void of losing someone they pinned so much hope on.
Monday was a sad day. It was also a day to grieve and learn.