Some struggle to find proper 9/11 balance

The media had already shifted into overdrive — or overkill — in its Sept. 11 10th anniversary coverage well before the actual date. So with the commemoration coinciding with a new season of America’s most-watched sport, there was little doubt what was to come.

Although sports often provide a break from somber news stories, there was no way to avoid this one. Besides, anybody attending a game in the past decade has been reminded of Sept. 11 at every turnstile, wading through enhanced security measures. The link is both logical and real.

The question was how networks and announcers — more accustomed to fretting about passing percentages than geopolitics — would handle a story outside their comfort zones. For the most part, TV struck the proper balance, but juxtaposing the giddiness surrounding the season kickoff — especially after the summer of the lockout — with the somberness of Sept. 11 couldn’t help but be awkward.

The lion’s share of significant coverage fell to the morning pregame shows. “We are combining our excitement for opening Sunday with the reality that this is the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” ESPN’s Chris Berman said on “NFL Countdown,” seemingly oblivious to the potential contradictions in those moods.

Indeed, a few minutes after referencing that cold dose of reality, Berman threw to Matthew Berry to talk not real games, but rather fantasy football. Later, there was a sober interview with New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, recalling how his son survived the attack in one of the World Trade Center towers.

And so it went. Wisely, the networks didn’t let Sept. 11 overshadow football. There were plenty of places for that. Yet inevitably, while some rose to the occasion, others looked as mismatched as a high school team against Green Bay.

FOX’s “NFL Sunday” — as usual — infused its presentation with the most drama, complete with an opening sequence featuring President George W. Bush and 9/11 first responders discussing the American spirit.

“An emotional and patriotic day here on FOX,” studio host Curt Menefee said, calling the taped segment “powerful and classy.” Had he stopped there, he would have been fine; instead, he tried bridging that line into introducing the analyst crew, saying, “Speaking of powerful and classy. . . .”

Ouch. The only moment more clunky than came when Menefee plugged the DVD release of FOX’s “X-Men: First Class.”

FOX fared better with its studio banter about “How the return of football was instrumental in healing millions after 9/11.” Former Giant Michael Strahan spoke about how visiting rescue workers gave him perspective back in 2001, thinking, “What we’re doing here means a lot to a lot of people, so give it everything you can.” A commentary by Howie Long struck a similar note, and frankly, FOX manages to make viewing any of its marquee sports events feel like a patriotic duty.

CBS’s “The NFL Today,” meanwhile, didn’t mention Sept. 11 until the first ad break. Host James Brown called the NFL’s opening Sunday “a party,” which is a little off-key when you’re simultaneously presenting a memorial. (The network did offer a piece about New England’s Joe Andruzzi and his brothers, who are New York firefighters.)

Mostly, the hits and misses boiled down to tone. CBS’ Jim Nantz, for example, asked broadcast partner Phil Simms whether the extended Sept. 11 tribute would distract players’ focus from their pregame mindset. While it was obvious what he meant, it made him sound like a guy with skewed priorities.

By contrast, NBC’s Al Michaels posed virtually the same question considerably better, noting that after all the emotion surrounding the Sept. 11 tribute in New York, players still had to go out and play a football game.

As it turned out, NBC also got the game of the day — Dallas playing at New York, where the memorial truly put a lump in the throat more than anything except perhaps some of those Sept. 11-themed commercials. (Well done, State Farm.). The Jets’ fourth-quarter comeback was so perfectly suited to the occasion, it almost felt scripted.

After a day of football viewing, one clear lesson emerged from Sunday’s Sept. 11 coverage, at least for NFL commentators compelled to venture into serious territory.

When in doubt, punt.

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