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ESPN apologizes for NFL draft graphic about Tee Higgins’s mother, says it ‘should not have aired’

Tee Higgins, surrounded by family, reacts after being drafted Saturday by the Cincinnati Bengals. (NFL/AP) (AP)
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ESPN apologized Sunday for an NFL draft graphic that highlighted a woman’s struggle with drug addiction, saying it “should not have aired” during the broadcast Saturday. The woman is the mother of wide receiver Tee Higgins, who later wrote on Twitter that he was proud of her.

Limited by stay-at-home orders amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, draft viewers could look in on Commissioner Roger Goodell as he served as emcee of the event from his basement. The kids of coaches and executives were adorable, and the possible gaffes — Was someone on the toilet in Mike Vrabel’s home? Bill Belichick has been replaced by a dog! — were entertaining moments. In a buttoned-down league, there was the whiff of a possibility that this might not be as scripted, and it did offer plenty of elements that could be adapted into the coverage of future drafts.

But the broadcast also featured stories of players’ personal tragedies, including deceased family members or other difficult matters. Some of those stories were captured in short graphics, which caught the attention of viewers.

Higgins, who played for Clemson and was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round Friday, was the focus of one of those graphics, which aired on ABC, according to an ESPN spokesperson. ABC and ESPN are owned by Disney.

The graphic read:

“Hometown: Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Finalist for Tennessee Mr. Basketball; held offers from Louisville, Auburn and Tennessee

Sister, KeKe, played basketball for Middle Tennessee State

Mom, Camillia, fought drug addiction for 16 years”

Higgins quickly tweeted that he had no problem with it.

“I’m proud of my mom for turning her life around for me and my sister!” he wrote. “I have no problem with them showing the world that my mom is a true fighter.”

The Higgins graphic “should not have aired,” ESPN vice president of production Seth Markman said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post on Sunday.

“It was a mistake and we apologize for it,” he said. “We want our draft coverage to personalize players and, where appropriate, acknowledge the obstacles they’ve had to overcome on their journey to the NFL. This graphic lacked proper context.”

The line gave short shrift to the story of Higgins and his mother.

“All I ever wanted to do was whatever I thought would make my mother most proud,” Higgins said in a video tweeted by the NFL.

“Back when I was younger, I was in and out of a house with my aunt because my mom was addicted to drugs and she was in and out of prison,” he told reporters at the NFL combine in February. “I didn’t really grow up with her as much. Her boyfriend shot her twice … sorry, it’s a hard story to tell … but her boyfriend shot her twice when I was in kindergarten. Just seeing her go through the struggles that she did, it was just something like no other. I don’t wish that on anybody. Now that she’s 12 years clean, it’s unbelievable, and all because of the man above. It’s something I hope no one goes through. Her story is why I’m here; she kept me playing football. I want to have her stress-free. I don’t want her to work anymore. I want her to live her best life.

“She’s had it worse than I have, so having a bad play, having a bad game, I think about it’s nothing compared to that. She’s at home, calling me every night, telling me make sure you pray, stay in the books so you can get these interviews down and may God be with you.”

His mother, Camillia Stewart, told the Greenville News in December that her life came “to a point where I got tired.”

“I wanted better. I wanted my kids to have better. They didn’t deserve that. They didn’t ask for that,” Stewart said. “So why keep putting them through something they shouldn’t have to go through? Having my kids there to support me means everything to me. They loved me unconditionally.”

Higgins was not the only player whose personal issues were highlighted. Another graphic noted that the father of Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs died from heart failure in 2008. And one mentioned that the mother of Laviska Shenault Jr., a Colorado wide receiver drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, survived after contracting West Nile virus in 2012.

More NFL coverage from The Post:

Jameis Winston, Saints reportedly closing in on one-year deal

What to know from the NFL draft: It’s a 7-on-7 league, and everyone is chasing the Chiefs

Analysis: Winners and losers from the draft

Patriots’ new kicker says he’ll cover tattoo related to right-wing militia groups

Barry Svrluga: Ron Rivera passed his first NFL draft, which had to include a Trent Williams trade