This week, controversy arose over an NBC interview of Olympic skier, Bode Miller. Bode became emotional while talking about his brother, professional snowboarder and Olympic hopeful, Chelone "Chilly" Miller, who died last April. As tears started streaming down his cheeks, interviewer Christin Cooper asked one more insightful, penetrating question, to which Bode put down his head and wept.
Fans and pundits alike rushed to Bode’s defense, expressing irritation, disbelief, and horror that Cooper could be so insensitive and brutish as to make a grown man cry. Twitter lit up with outrage. Social media blasted criticism. Even the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir jumped on the band wagon, proclaiming that Bode was forced to reveal more emotion than intended, and shame on the camera that remained on Bode for another 75 seconds (forever in TV land) while he knelt behind the orange barrier with his wife and others comforting him, and announcer Dan Hicks, pointing out in hushed tones that it’s been an emotional year for Bode.
Speaking for the masses, Sandomir argues that once Bode had shed a tear, asking a follow-up question was “overkill.” Praising Bode, he writes, “He was holding up, but tears had started to trickle down Miller’s face. He was being a stand-up guy, even if he was being pulled through a wringer.”
So, did Cooper cross the line? Did she pull Bode “through a wringer” and undermine his “holding up”? Is it inappropriate for global television to train its lens on a weeping man?
The Back Story
Last Sunday at the Sochi Olympics, Bode Miller took the Bronze medal in the Alpine Skiing Super G competition, breaking his own record as the most decorated American Olympic skier ever, and becoming the oldest skier to win an Olympic medal.
Bode Millerhas been thrilling spectators for the past four Olympics. He’s known for technique, speed, daring, strength, skiing on the edge of control, and amazing recoveries from near crashes. He’s also been a study in contradictions: Easy-going off the course, but intense on it; not caring whether he wins or loses, but wanting to ski a perfect race. Then there’s his famous 2006 admission to racing while still drunk from partying the night before, but strictly adhering to his grueling training regimen. Wild but devoted.
Yet during these Olympics, many observers are noticing a different Bode Miller. He’s more mature, abstaining from the party circuit and turning in early for a good night’s sleep before a race. He’s more humble, acknowledging that he needs all the support he can get from family, friends, and fans, rather than thinking, “It’s all me.” He’s more circumspect on the course, not wanting to take undue risks, and even dropping out of Olympic competition this week before his sixth (and final) race due to tweaking a previously injured knee in the fifth.
We got to see this new, gentler, sensitive Bode “unplugged” when he started to cry during an emotional interview right after winning the Bronze in his fourth race. Bode started by mentioning how different it was to win a medal this time in light of his brother Chelone's death. Chelone, a brilliantly talented snowboarder, suffered a fatal seizure (associated with a traumatic brain injury sustained in a 2005 motorcycle crash). The two brothers were each hoping to make the U.S. Olympic ski and snowboard teams and attend this Olympics together. That dream died with Chelone.
In the emotion-laden NBC interview, Cooper asks him what winning this medal means to him, compared to all the others he's amassed over the years. Bode, who is already very emotional about winning a medal, is the one who brings up his brother.
Bode: This one was a little different. I think, um, with my brother passing away, I really wanted to come back here and race, you know, the way he sends it. So this was a little different.
Cooper: Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here. What’s going through your mind?
Bode: Um, I mean a lot, obviously. Just a long struggle coming in here, just a tough year.
Cooper: I know you wanted to be here with Chilly, really, experiencing these games. How much does it mean to you to come up with a great performance for him. And was it for him?
Bode: Um, I mean, I don’t know if it’s for him, but I wanted to come here and I don’t know, I guess make myself proud, but….
Tears start streaming down Bode's cheeks.
Cooper: When you’re looking up in the sky at the start, we see you there and it just looks like you’re talking to somebody. What’s going on there?
Bode bows down and weeps. Cooper reaches out, touches his arm, and softly says, “I’m sorry.”
Contrary to popular analysis, I don’t hear Cooper apologizing for the question. I’m hearing her express genuine empathy and sorrow for the death of Bode’s beloved brother. I’m watching a heartfelt, authentic human interaction. I feel grateful for the opportunity to witness it.
And that’s where the public starts to get it wrong. They accuse Cooper of impropriety, perceiving her apology as an admission of fault. NBC, battered by complaints, released this thoughtful statement defending Cooper and the interview:
Our intent was to convey the emotion that Bode Miller was feeling after winning his bronze medal. We understand how some viewers thought the line of questioning went too far, but it was our judgment that his answers were a necessary part of the story. We’re gratified that Bode has been publicly supportive of Christin Cooper and the overall interview.
Indeed, Bode admires and respects Cooper as a friend. And as a grieving man, he got something precious from her—she was willing to bear witness to his grief. And perhaps more significantly, she was inviting millions of people around the world to bear witness as well.
You see, like any bereaved person who has experienced the death of a loved one, what Bode needs more than anything are companions who are willing to walk this journey of grief with him. He needs the company of people who aren’t afraid to remember Chilly with him. He benefits from folks who are willing to ask him about his brother and listen to him talk about how he’s really doing. He appreciates fans who can walk a mile with him, rather than retreat and hide from his expression of grief.
A Kinder, Gentler Perspective
To give you a clearer picture of the emotional landscape Bode is traveling, here are some psychological insights and compassionate ways to think about that interview.
Finally, contrary to how it’s been portrayed by detractors, Bode’s show of emotion does not indicate weakness, nor was it “a breakdown” or a failure to “hold up.” Nor was he embarrassed, no matter how embarrassed Cooper’s detractors might feel for him. In fact, he later spoke openly about his feelings, and answered Cooper’s last question during an ESPN interview.
When asked if he was surprised about the raw emotion he displayed during the interview. He says, “Yeah I was. I mean, it’s just like a floodgate opening. Your whole life is kind of laid bare for you to feel all at once. And yeah I was surprised but I guess if there’s ever a time, it’s when you’re toward the end of your career. And the loss of my brother is always going to be something that, when I feel that or when I open myself up to that, it’s going to hurt. It’s just never going to go away.”
When asked about the moment before the race, Bode says, “I was just asking the part of my brother that I carry with me, my family, my wife, fans, to give me as much push as they could. I knew it was going to be a really tight race. I knew it was going to come down to a couple hundredths of a second most likely, and I wanted to be on the right side of those. Maybe when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been asking. I would’ve been, ‘It’s all me. I’m going to do this by myself.' And this time, it’s like I need all the help I can get.”
Mahala Gaylord, a videojournalist from The Denver Post, likens this controversy to the recent public outrage over the interview with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who sounded off right after his team clinched a berth in the Super Bowl. His emotional outburst, prompted by an unfair call against him at the end of the game, apparently exceeded what folks could tolerate. Gaylord observes, “The Twitter/ Social Media Universe can’t handle it.” But interviewing players still in the heat of the moment, how can we expect them to be calm, cool, and collected? Like Bode Miller, Richard Sherman is brilliant, passionate, intense, at the top of his game, and a top competitor. He’s comfortable in his own skin and stood by his emotional expression. And whether we can admit it or not, we actually crave these emotional moments with superstars and heroes. As Gaylord points out, “It’s what we’re all searching for—honest emotional expression is how we connect with each other.”
The Bottom Line
The Olympics are all about narrative. We might be invested in the results, but we’re emotionally drawn toward the people and their stories. Bode's and Chelone's stories are full of inspiration, devotion, and love. And to see Bode shed a tear for his brother, to watch him lean into the comforting embrace of his wife—these images were far more heartening and satisfying to us than a quick cut to a studio talking head, which Sandomir suggested as more appropriate. We might thrill at the goals scored and finish lines crossed, but we get a lump in our throats for the athletes standing on the podium. Isn’t this why we watch the Olympics, for those emotional moments?
At the end of Cooper’s interview, that image of Bode overcome with emotion was worth a thousand words. Cooper asked the right question yet didn’t press Bode to say more. Did we need to hear his answer? His emotional expression said it all.
‘Nuf said. Bravo. Well done.
For a journalist's point of view on asking the difficult questions, see Sarah Pulliam Bailey's defense of Cooper in the Atlantic Monthly. Read here.