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Cautious approach, human touch: ESPN writers on mental health in sports profiles

Liz Merrill (Randy Gregory), Molly Knight (Makenzie Mason) explain techniques on stories

Dallas Cowboys DE Randy Gregory (94) (Andrew Hancock for ESPN)

Whether it’s this past summer’s extraordinary five-part series from Jackie MacMullan on “Mental Health in the NBA” or Outside the Lines’ 2015 Mental Health America Media Award-winning “College Athletes And Mental Health: Sasha’s Story,” ESPN has been at the forefront in covering the topic.

This week provided two more powerful pieces on mental health in sports as ESPN senior writer Elizabeth Merrill and espnW contributor Molly Knight penned separate stories depicting, respectively, the struggles and triumphs of Dallas Cowboy Randy Gregory and University of Florida lacrosse player Makenzie Mason.

Although writing on similar topics, Knight and Merrill had to take slightly different approaches.

“When Randy [Gregory] fell in the 2015 draft, there were stories that mentioned the word ‘bipolar’ in them, but it was never more than a sentence or so,” said Merrill, who has been with ESPN since 2007. “I really wanted to be careful about broaching that, or any mental-health questions, when I was cold-calling people. When I finally talked to him, I learned that he is not bipolar, but deals with issues such as depression, PTSD, anxiety and panic attacks.”

Knight actually was approached by Makenzie and the story was written in an as-told-to format.

Makenzie Mason (right) and her sister Sydney (Photo courtesy of Makenzie Mason/ESPN)

“I helped 49ers player Solomon Thomas tell the story about his sister’s death by suicide, and Makenzie saw the story and reached out to me,” said Knight, a New York Times best-selling author and former ESPN The Magazine baseball writer. “Makenzie had been going through a particularly rough time with depression and her mother showed her the article because they knew the Thomas family. Solomon played for Makenzie’s dad, [current Vanderbilt University head coach]Derek Mason, who was Stanford’s defensive coordinator at the time.

“Makenzie wanted to share her story with me from the perspective of a young person currently battling depression and anxiety,” Knight said. “She felt she could offer some insight and try to help people understand why someone who seemed to have so much to live for would want to take her life.”

Even with different approaches to the writing and reporting, it was paramount for both women to establish trust, gain deeper understanding of mental illness and show sensitivity.

“I feel an intense pressure to be right with every story, but with this one, it was important to acknowledge that I’m not an expert, and to be even more careful about every word I use,” Merrill said. “Building trust with someone in his circle was key, and from there I was able to talk with people who worked with him at the sober-living house and at rehab.”

“I was extremely concerned about this story,” Knight said, “because even though Makenzie is the one who reached out to me, I was still very sensitive to the idea that she’s so young and she’s been through so much and I would never want to help facilitate something she would later regret.”

The caution and human touch paid dividends for the storytelling.

“Throughout the process it was very important to me to make sure Makenzie felt in control of it. No word was written that she didn’t want written,” Knight said. “No picture included that she didn’t select. We went through multiple rounds of edits and she added and deleted bits that she changed her mind on sharing. This is very different from any other story that I write because I never show subjects the text before it runs. But it was her story, so, in my mind this is the way it had to be.”

“Luckily, we have great editors here, and my editor, Jena Janovy, was invaluable,” Merrill said. “We wanted to make it as real as possible, and at times there was some pushback from Randy’s people. You want to be sympathetic in these cases, but still do your job, and Jena was really great at helping me navigate through that.”

That guidance and the careful attention to details is what makes the end results so impactful.

“Even though these stories were hard, the payoff has been so worth it,” Knight said. “So many people feel less alone because of Solomon and Makenzie, and that’s why I went into journalism in the first place.”

– Molly Mita

1. Heisman Trophy Presentation on Saturday, Dec. 8. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

2. Monday Night Football Vikings at Seahawks on Monday, Dec. 10. (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

3. MLB meetings coverage live from Las Vegas beginning Monday 12/10 with Buster Olney and Tim Kurkjian.

4. NFL owner meetings live coverage from Irving, Texas on Wednesday 12/12 with Stefano Fusaro.

– Molly Mita

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