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Newest 30 for 30 Short: Cutthroat reminds SportsCenter veterans of gruesome injury

Former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk’s devastating injury is revisited in “Cutthroat,” ESPN’s newest 30 for 30 Short.

Vic Morren, now a senior manager in production at ESPN, was working as a production assistant on SportsCenter on March 22, 1989. This was the night Buffalo Sabres’ goalie Clint Malarchuk had his carotid artery severed in a horrific in-game accident. The incident is the focus of the latest 30 for 30 Short:Cutthroat published on Grantland. [Warning: This film contains graphic footage of the injury.]

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A few other current ESPNers were working on SportsCenter the night of Malarchuk’s injury.

Here are some of their recollections.

Mike McQuade was a production assistant; currently Vice President, Event Production

“I believe it was the game right next to where I was sitting in screening. You’ve got to remember there was no Internet, and very few computers. Trying to get information on what exactly was happening was incredibly difficult.

“I remember thinking, ‘This could end badly.’ Almost everyone in the highlight screening area were sickened by what they saw, and we were all fearful he may not live.”

Barry Sacks was producer of the 2:30 am SportsCenter; currently Senior Coordinating Producer
“It is nights like these — when Wayne Gretzky was traded, when Pete Rose was kicked out of baseball, Magic Johnson’s AIDS announcement — that are the ones etched in your memory where you remember every, last, little, detail.”

Jay Sullivan was a production assistant; currently Senior Writer/Producer, Marketing Creative Services
“I’ll never forget that night — March 22, 1989. I had become a temporary production assistant a month earlier, after spending eight months in our mail room. I was born and raised in Newington, Conn., so working in Production was a dream come true. That night I was hoping to get the [Boston]Bruins-[Hartford]Whalers game as my game to screen and do the highlights for, but I was assigned the [St. Louis] Blues versus the [Buffalo] Sabres. Man, I had no idea what was in store for me.

“For a split second I thought, ‘Oh! We might have a goal!’ Then it went to ‘Wow, what a collision!’ to ‘Holy ^&$#! [Malarchuk] just got his throat slashed in the collision!’. . . I immediately called over two colleagues and scrolled the play back for them. They literally started screaming.

“We ended up cutting that highlight [which I still have on my PA reel], showing the play just like it happened live, but with a disclaimer for viewers.” – David Scott[/box]

Front Row sat down with Morren to get some insight into that night and what it is like to cover visually disturbing, but newsworthy, sports injuries.

What was the SportsCenter team focused on during the night of the Sabres game?
Despite the newsworthiness of the Malarchuk injury, the announcement that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would retire as well as the surfacing of a report of betting on baseball by the all-time hits leader Pete Rose were headliners on March 22, 1989.

Clint Malarchuk (Credit: Getty Images)
Clint Malarchuk
(Credit: Getty Images)

This is the first 30 for 30 digital short where ESPN Films opted to use a ‘viewer discretion’ notice due to the content. While working on SportsCenter, how do you handle covering something that might be disturbing to viewers?
The Malarchuk injury was so disturbing, talent cut right to the chase that night. Today, stories with difficult video are usually set up and led into with something like, “and just a warning, some viewers may find this video disturbing.” Just the opposite was done on March 22, 1989. The lead was, “What you are about to see is graphic.” Then we quickly did the set up before running the video to give the viewer time to look away if he or she chose to do so.

Serious injuries can occur across any sport. Do you recommend certain steps to try to best cover an event while not showing excessively graphic material?
There are certain steps to be taken when documenting a graphic injury. ESPN recently had that challenge again reporting the broken leg suffered by Louisville’s Kevin Ware during the 2013 NCAA tournament. It is important to quickly get a grasp on the significance of the injury leveraging that against its newsworthiness. Since CBS was covering the game, we had time to decide how we would report it from a studio perspective.

We decided on a disclaimer, at real speed once with reaction, and no bumps or replays in the initial coverage. My belief within live game coverage is, one replay, two maximum if the second replay angle provides something useful or revealing. Reaction and covering the athlete in the aftermath then becomes paramount. There is a delicate balance between documentation and sensitivity to an athlete’s distress. While one never knows what type of injury is going to occur, having a plan to strike an appropriate balance will usually result in proper decisions by producers.

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