The only group of people who did worse than the referees during last night’s Bears-Steelers game was the Monday Night Football booth. Without the ManningCast this week, everyone tuning into MNF was watching the main broadcast consisting of Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick. From Griese talking about the Bears going for two in a tie game to Levy thinking the game-ending 65-yard field goal hit the crossbar instead of falling way short, the booth made plenty of mistakes to fill a season. But there was one notable mistake that took the cake, and the player involved didn’t appreciate the error.

Hours before the game, ESPN published a story about Steelers running back Najee Harris donating money via his foundation to renovate a homeless shelter he, his siblings, and his mother lived in when Najee was a kid. It’s a great and uplifting story about a family in need, being treated like human beings in their time of need, and giving back now they’re fortunate in life.

In a bit of Disneyfied synergy, the broadcast spent time mentioning the article and sharing Harris’ story throughout the game. For the cherry on top, Levy added that when he joined the University of Alabama, Harris would sleep on the floor for the first few months on campus because he was “more used to that.”

After the game, Harris denied that part of his story happened as he tweeted, “Bra I ain’t sleep on no dam floor in college. I slept on my bed.”

Levy apologized to Harris over Twitter, while also pledging to donate to Najee’s charity. The “sleeping on the floor at Alabama” part wasn’t in the original ESPN story and it turned out that it was Raiders running back Josh Jacobs who slept on the floor while at Alabama. In all honesty, given there are researchers involved to look this stuff up in order to give to their commentators, this may not totally be Levy’s fault, but this is the latest example of ESPN trying way too hard getting us to cry with sympathy porn.

This isn’t the first time ESPN has tried to open the waterworks. They were roasted hard during their 2020 NFL Draft broadcast, where they seemingly made sure to have at least one example of hardship for just about every draftee that either they or someone in their family experienced. From family members contracting West Nile Virus to fighting drug addiction, ESPN ran the gamut on hardships. While the idea was to humanize these players and maybe make them relatable to viewers, the network instead came across as overly opportunistic and crass as they exploited the worst moments of players’ lives during what’s supposed to be one of the happiest moments of their lives.

That’s what last night reminded me of, a broadcast that cared more about trying to make viewers cry instead of actually calling the game, especially when so many obvious errors were being made. This doesn’t mean that off-the-field hardships and philanthropy efforts should never be mentioned on a broadcast. A casual mention helps complete a well-rounded broadcast or helps bail out a commentary team in a blowout, but ESPN should keep in mind what people are tuning in for. Think of it like a steak dinner. The on-field play is the steak and the off-the-field hardships are the garnish. The garnish is important and it has its place, but it’s not the main course and not what people are there for. They’re there for the steak.

No doubt, this will all blow over in a day or so, but maybe this is a sign for ESPN to adjust their approach. Because when ESPN relies too much on targeting our sympathies instead of the play on the field, and they make plenty of mistakes in the process, the reactions to said mistakes is tougher. The broadcast gives off a perception that they weren’t prepared for the game and were more concerned with other things. Just keep it simple and viewers will be happy.

About Phillip Bupp

News editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, highlight consultant for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

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