Behind the Camera, the Forgotten Cog in the Sports Media Machine

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When not being yelled at by Brian Scalabrine and Joakim Noah, the camera operator is one of the most unnoticed cogs in the sports media machine.

A typical sports viewer is aware of the play-by-play men, color commentators and sideline reporters on a given telecast. The more media-oriented viewer may recognize behind-the-scenes names such as Ed Feibischoff, Ken Dennis, Drew Esocoff, Scooter Vertino or Renardo Lowe, mainly because the play-by-play voice mentions them during the sign-off.

Very rarely does the viewer know the name of the camera operator, the individual largely responsible for crafting the images that define sports history. Who was behind the camera when Michael Jordan hit his iconic shot against the Jazz, or when Robert Horry beat the buzzer against the Kings?

Some may wonder why it matters. After all, there’s a level of common sense associated with shooting a sporting event. It doesn’t take much to decide you want to keep the camera on Michael Jordan when the game is on the line.

But beyond the common sense aspect, there’s real skill involved that often goes unnoticed if done well. Rarely on a network telecast does the camera lose track of the ball, or a shot go out of focus. This is not particularly easy during a fast-paced game. Certainly, this is not to praise camera operators for simply doing their job at a professional level, just to say that they do indeed perform at a high level — and unlike athletes or even other members of the media, rarely receive notice for doing so.

In fact, they often receive notice only when things go wrong. For example, Friday night, when the previously mentioned Scalabrine and Noah yelled at an ESPN camera person for an unknown misdeed. Other examples abound, such as Rasheed Wallace cursing out a camera person three years ago, Kenny Rogers attacking a pair of cameramen in 2005, and Dennis Rodman kicking a cameraman in the 1990s.

To a certain extent, one understands athlete frustration. They’re working hard in a heated environment, and one imagines they must resent the encroachment of the media onto their playing surface. One need only look at the Pacers’ Darren Collison to see that having camera people right under the basket can lead to injury.

Even if one resents giving camera operators so much access to the game, an argument can be made that many of these athletes — and broadcasters as well — benefit from their presence.

It’s difficult to imagine how history would remember an athlete such as Michael Jordan without some of the lasting images of his career. Images such as the camera panning up on Jordan as he walks down the court, somehow sneering and chewing gum at the same time. His shrug against Portland in 1992. Him pumping his fists in excitement after beating Cleveland three years earlier. These as the images that are so frequently reused in highlight reels of his career — not just today, but even when he was still playing.

Obviously, there were stars before the age of television. However, images still exist even of those athletes. Babe Ruth‘s career ended before the first televised baseball game, but highlights still exist of his career. Home runs, colorful moments, images that bring an almost mythical figure to life.

Even if they may seem a nuisance to those playing the game, camera operators are indispensable to televised sports, and vital to crafting athletes’ figurative images. Though they capture the indelible moments that fans collectively remember — the moments that build legacies that last for years — they themselves are generally overlooked.

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