ESPN’s Hannah Storm: Why Showing Emotion Is a Sign of Strength

“Sports is a microcosm of life: Tragedy has always found its way onto the field of play.”

What place does emotion have at work — and, particularly, in an arena dominated by toughness and bravado, such as sports? In one sense, we are in new territory: a place where the cast of TNT’s NBA studio show can give an impassioned and personal take on matters of politics and religion. The subject matter is indeed new, comprised of issues that have been traditionally taboo in sports broadcasting. Issues such as racism, sexual orientation, domestic abuse, police brutality, gender discrimination, and child abuse have all had their place front and center in the sports news cycle. With that, we have seen a welcome advent of new voices and perspectives, bringing with them passionate viewpoints that resonate well beyond the X’s and O’s of traditional sports broadcasting.

Traditionally, sports has been the place to escape the heavier realities of life. There’s a scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles where John Candy and Steve Martin, in an effort to recapture their machismo after an awkward situation, start talking about the Chicago Bears; that scene is emblematic of the past nature of sports talk. It was a place where primarily men could bond and where emotion was reserved for the passion one feels about a favorite team or athlete.

And yet, sports is a microcosm of life: Tragedy has always found its way onto the field of play. One cannot watch Jim McKay’s announcement of the Israeli track team murders by the PLO at the Munich Olympics without feeling a visceral reaction at the words “They’re all gone.”

During my stint at CBS News, the most difficult thing I had to do as a broadcaster was to interview surviving family members in the early days of the Iraq War. I cried on the air and came close more than a few other times. It was a traumatic time fraught with sleepless nights.

While we are taught to be objective and calm, being stoic in the face of tragic loss is nearly impossible. At ESPN, I’ve had to announce the deaths of two colleagues over the past two years — men whom I knew and admired greatly: Stuart Scott and John Saunders. Both times, I was told the awful news some 30 minutes before delivering it on television. In the interim, I had to be stoic and announce the sports as if all was normal. And then, when it came time to share the news, I couldn’t stop the flow of emotion. It was too raw, too powerful, and the only thing that helped get me through it was the thought of the great weight of responsibility that I had to their families and those who loved them. I wanted to offer comfort and do their legacies justice.

The recent shocking death of young baseball star José Fernández also happened when I was live on the air — another instance where I truly felt, and displayed, the depth of my emotion while covering a breaking news story. Baseball analyst Eduardo Perez broke down as we were talking; others were choked up.

What becomes critical in these moments is striking a balance: taking great care to not let your emotions distract from your duty or become part of the story.

Being a broadcaster goes beyond simply reporting the news; it must also come from an authentic place. You have to be comfortable with being vulnerable at times, and by doing so, you also give others an opportunity to feel their own emotions. I’m not simply reporting to you—I’m with you in this fight we call life and humanity.

And then again, sometimes, thankfully, we just need to say… “Now, how ‘bout those Bears?”