ESPN’s connection of the Jimmy V story with Tubby Smith’s was out of bounds

ESPN has begun another Jimmy V Week for Cancer Research in order to raise awareness and money for cancer research. The week – and The V Foundation for Cancer Research – are named after legendary college basketball coach Jimmy Valvano, who died of metastatic adenocarcinoma just a few weeks after giving this unforgettable speech at the ESPY Awards in 1993.

I watched the speech again last night with one of my sons and, as always, it brought tears.  The talk was so masterful – mixing humor and sadness – elements of what Jimmy V said should be part of every day.  He said:

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. …Number one is laugh. … Number two is think. … And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

So let me be clear that I am moved by the Jimmy V story. photo

But ESPN, in my view, went overboard during the telecast of the University of Minnesota – Virginia Tech basketball game as part of Jimmy V Week.  They linked Minnesota coach Tubby Smith’s prostate cancer story with Jimmy V’s story.   Here’s a partial transcript of the segment:

ESPN announcer:  “Tubby Smith has fought and won.”

Smith:  “If you get a checkup and they find it early, then they can eradicate it and minimize the effect.”

ESPN announcer:  “Because of the screenings he’d been doing regularly – he’d been very religious about it – they caught his prostate cancer very, very early and the surgery was successful.  He kept it very quiet, though, very close to the vest.”

OK, it was just a sports announcer and it was just a well-intentioned awareness message.

But it is misleading to link a “very, very early” prostate cancer with Jimmy V’s terminal metastatic adenocarcinoma.  Why?

  • It is unknown, for example, whether any form of regular screening would have helped Jimmy V.
  • It is also unknown what the prostate cancer screening REALLY did for Tubby Smith.  The blood test score was elevated, which led to a biopsy, which led to surgery.  That’s all we’ve been told. (And he’s entitled to keep all details private.) But because there are many questions about whether treating the kinds of cancers that can be found with the PSA blood test actually saves lives, the “fought and won” sports analogy may be baseless.
  • Not all cancers are alike – and certainly a “very, very early” prostate cancer is in a different league than what Jimmy V had.
  • Yes, Tubby Smith is an African-American man and that puts him at higher risk.  But that point wasn’t made to the heterogeneous male viewing audience – not all of whom are at higher risk.
  • Yes, some early prostate cancers can progress to metastatic cancers but prostate cancer is so different that the kinds of screenings the announcer promoted are not, in fact, universally supported and men are urged to consider the potential benefits versus the potential harms of screening in a careful decision-making process. That complexity wasn’t even hinted at by the announcer.

A public awareness campaign that educated people about these issues would be welcome.

You can still honor the memory of Jimmy V.  You can still raise money for cancer research.  You can still feel good for Coach Smith that he’s happy with his decision.  But we balk at simplistic, misleading messages that could be so easily improved – even by sports announcers.


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