How NFL TV Broadcasters Plan to Cover the Anthem Protests

As the national anthem protest movement spreads and gains strength, the league’s TV partners are facing the question of how to handle social and political gestures in the midst of a football telecast
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Tim Corrigan knew what it meant as soon as it happened. The longtime ESPN producer was sitting in a production truck on the ground floor of FirstEnergy Stadium when he witnessed through a bank of television monitors that a group of close to a dozen Cleveland Browns players had chosen to take a knee during the national anthem before the Browns-Giants preseason game on Aug 21. At the time, Corrigan was serving as the rehearsal-game producer for Beth Mowins and Rex Ryan, who were calling the game as practice for a later assignment as Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden described the action for a nationally televised audience a few broadcast booths down in the press box. As soon as he saw it, Corrigan let Mowins and Ryan know what it meant. “Guys, “Corrigan said, “this is going to be a huge story on opening week.”

This Sunday the NFL’s broadcast networks will be faced with significant editorial choices before kickoff. It has become clear that a number of players across the NFL plan to either kneel or make some kind of statement when the national anthem plays. The MMQB spoke with executives at CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC for insight and perspective on how they planned to cover any protest. Uniformly, they agreed that it was a news story to cover. How much each network covers the protest will vary.

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“We will document what is on the field just as we did last year,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “We don’t show the national anthem for most of our games, but we have instructed our producers and directors to scan the sidelines, and if something is going on that we think deserves coverage, they are free to show it. Week 1, I think it will be a story. If it is still being done Week 4, 5 or 6, I’m not sure it still is a story. We will make that decision as the season goes on.”

“It is an interesting and divisive topic,” said Richie Zyontz, the lead producer for Fox Sports on Joe Buck and Troy Aikman’s NFL broadcast. “I discussed privately with colleagues at our Fox NFL meetings, and opinions are split: Some feel it has no place in the broadcast; others feel it’s part of the game story. Our boss Eric Shanks, similar to last season, has asked us to acknowledge what our cameras see without dwelling on it, and I totally agree. I think we should document what transpires during the national anthem on both sidelines. I don’t think it would be right to show a single player without the context of his teammates and the other sideline. Every game account and every radio call-in show will be rife with description and discussion on Monday regarding the anthem so to ignore it would be negligent.”

Said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, “We would definitely show any player who is protesting, no question about that. If it happens on Sunday night, we would probably come out of the pre-kick break and document that so-and-so decided to protest. I don’t want to get into—and I don’t think Al [Michaels] and Cris [Collinsworth] want to get into—any long elaboration, because it can become an endless discussion. But as it relates to being at a football game, you have to show it and document it, and from there you move on to football. People are protesting, and some of these guys are star players.”

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“I think we all expect something to happen,” said ESPN’s Corrigan, who will produce the late game, Chargers at Broncos, for the opening week Monday Night Football doubleheader. “You have to be careful, though. You don’t want to lead people in a path of conversation that is not the right conversation. You have to be reactive to what you see. What I mean by that is if nobody does anything in Denver, then I don’t know why we would engage. Part of it is what happens in front of us. We are reporting on news in front of us if something happens. Then we would discuss with Rex [Ryan, who will call the game with Mowins] if he has an opinion on it and how he dealt with it on his teams.”

The announcers—and particularly the sideline reporters who will have a first-hand account of what is being done—will be key in terms of how long the coverage goes and the depth of the coverage.

“Last year I had [produced] the [opening week] Niners-Rams game, and we got there in time for the anthem because the early game had finished,” Corrigan said. “We had Lindsay Czarniak positioned down on the field so she could observe things that you can’t see from the booth or the television, which includes reaction from fans or players. As a producer I am thinking, What aren’t we seeing? What aren’t we hearing? Are there little moments going on that we can report on?”

Clearly, every NFL rights-holder is reticent to go too deep on protest discussions during a game broadcast, though TV executives swear up and down that their coverage of the issue is not dictated by the NFL. Last week McManus became the first sports television network president to say publicly that he believed national anthem protests last season were a factor in the decline of NFL ratings. He was emphatic, however, that it was merely a factor and not the cause.

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“We don’t tell our announcers what to say,” McManus said. “We encourage our announcers to express their opinion. If they have an opinion or thought on this, they are free to express it. But I have said we are basically there to broadcast a football game and not get involved in political or social issues. I don’t think you will see a lot of commentary on the part of our commentary teams.”

McManus linking the anthem to any kind of ratings decrease runs counter to public declarations from Fox Sports executives and other execs that the protests had any impact. When I asked whether the anthem protests had an impact on declining NFL ratings last year, Gaudelli said, “If you had a list of items that affected the ratings last year, I’m not sure it cracks the top 90 percent.”

Every executive The MMQB spoke with believed the story would recede as the season moved along. “There will be a lot of curiosity early in the season as to what types of protest statements we might see,” Zyontz said. “I suspect the topic and the way television reacts will cool off as season progresses.”

Perhaps so, but keep in mind how far the protest has come from Colin Kaepernick simply taking a knee. In Week 3 of the preseason, there were at least six games at which a player displayed a sign of protest of some kind during the anthem. Nobody knows where this is ultimately going, including the football-airing networks.

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