• One of the NFL’s biggest corporate partners is embracing the polarizing ex-QB, but broadcasters are making their choice clear: They’re focusing on the games, and only the games. Is ‘Stick to Sports’ winning? If so, what would it mean for sports journalism?
By Jacob Feldman
September 07, 2018

On Thursday night, millions of NFL fans saw and heard Colin Kaepernick for the first time in months. As the Eagles and Falcons trudged through a disjointed, penalty-ridden opener, Kaepernick’s narration of a 90-second Nike ad during the third quarter ranked among the night’s most memorable moments. The marketing partnership between Kaepernick and Nike has been discussed on late-night TV, examined in The New Yorker, and criticized by President Donald Trump. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it went unmentioned during the NBC telecast.

NBC did show the anthem on Thursday night, but only because that’s what it has always done on the first Thursday of the season. The camera generally stayed away from socially active Eagles star Michael Bennett (who sat down before the end of the song), and there was no discussion of Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins’s decision to no longer demonstrate during the performance. Expect more of the same Sunday (and more of that Nike spot, which will reportedly continue to run).

What made the Kaepernick ad campaign so shocking this week—inspiring some, appalling others—is that on the biggest stages of the media world, “stick to sports” has been winning. Where the multi-billion-dollar apparel company has taken a calculated risk, sports broadcasters have opted to avoid controversy. It’s not about politics, but economics. In a precarious media environment, everyone from FOX pregame host Michael Strahan to ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has voiced a strategy that starkly contrasts Nike’s: We’re focusing on the games.

Last year on Sunday Night Football, Cris Collinsworth suggested Trump apologize for calling player-protestors “son of b----es.” Last night, he never noted the Eagles’ failure to visit the White House. Asked before the game about how the broadcast would handle political storylines, a spokesman said, “We cover news as it relates to the game.” A year ago, Booger McFarland defended police and the American flag during an appearance on ESPN2. But during an August press event, after Jason Witten responded to a question about the anthem and turned to his fellow Monday Night Football analyst, McFarland opted to stay quiet, looking for the next question. Meanwhile, NBC and ESPN are reportedly splitting with two of their most outspoken personalities when it comes to social issues: Bob Costas and Jemele Hill.

This trend goes beyond Kaepernick, Trump or the anthem. In June, Georgetown professor Deborah Epstein resigned from the NFLPA’s Commission on Violence Prevention after “I realized very little, if anything, was going to happen,” she told NPR. She wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post, claiming that she’d merely given “lip service to domestic violence prevention.” Yet, even amidst #MeToo, her protest registered little to no recognition in the sports media world. Most of you are probably hearing about it for the first time.

Outside football, there was a noticeable emphasis to keep the focus on the pitch during this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with international relations, doping, or corruption rarely mentioned. “We don’t delude ourselves into thinking that any of us are Edward R. Murrow,” executive producer David Neal told Richard Deitsch before the competition. “We are there to cover the World Cup. Anything that might happen beyond that, we will leave it to others to cover.” Worth noting: ESPN's Human Trafficking & the World Cup story won the 2011 Murrow award for video investigative reporting. From 2013 to ’16, sports outlets collected four Peabody Awards—earned for “powerful, enlightening” stories—about topics including environmentalism, race relations, and harassment. Where is that type of broad journalistic ambition now? And if it disappears entirely, is the message that sports should be watched with blinders on?

Just last year, writers were declaring the notion of keeping sports apolitical outdated. “Sports is the one place where you have people from all across the political and ideological spectrum participating,” Rachel Nichols told Slate, explaining why social issues were permeating sports talk. “And therefore it is one of the few big tents where you can have this exchange of ideas between people who aren’t just echoing each other.”

Then, Trump entered the tent. Conversations that had been implicitly political became overtly so. Fans went from subdividing by team affiliation to sorting by political identity. And, most notably, some walked out. The percentage of Republicans not following the NFL closely has shot up 250 percent since 2014, from 16 to 39 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Nike and the NFL: How Two Companies Saw Colin Kaepernick in Very Different Ways

Nike, with its 50 percent stock value increase since this time last year, might be able to stomach a short-term backlash. Monday Night Football, coming off its lowest ratings ever, doesn’t seem to have the appetite for it. Combine the democratization of leisure media with political boycotts and you’ve got a serious problem.

So the NFL and its partners reacted. Football doesn’t need to be a platform, they say, it can just be a party. “We just focus on what our jobs are,” Strahan said, “and that’s to bring the games to people and hopefully have them enjoy it.” In Bristol, the first word MNF announcer Joe Tessitore used to describe his new team was “joyful.” That mirrors the desire of his new boss, Pitaro, to highlight sports’ positive impacts. When the network does venture away from the field of play, it will be for unassailable events like the Sports Humanitarian Awards or a special about September 11.

Explaining ESPN's new marketing campaign—Life Needs Sports—brand SVP Sean Hanrahan said: “Sports give us what we need, when we need it—inspiration, connection, escape.” But how long can an escape last in 2018?

“We do like to stick to sports around here. That’s why we all got into this …. But before we do that, we’ve got to talk about the biggest news in the NFL today, and it is inherently political.” That was Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder during Week 3 last year, before the crew spent 22 minutes exclusively discussing Trump’s “S.O.B.” comment. Despite what transpired last season, NFL media boss Brian Rolapp said: “I don’t think it will be difficult” for broadcasters to keep their focus on the field this season.

This week though, when Nike was Google’s top search term and Kaepernick's face was on The New York Times homepage, there seems to be a disconnect between publishers and fans. At one point, only one of Google News’ top 10 stories about Kaepernick came from a sports outlet (Deadspin) and his name was absent from ESPN.com’s Top Headlines Wednesday afternoon after the ad hit social media. Wednesday’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter awarded the news 14 seconds of airtime. In an election year, sports and politics are sure to cross again soon, and broadcasters’ silence could become deafening.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see an athlete criticize a large sports outlet for not helping amplify players’ messages this year, admonishing a company for making money off athletics without letting the stars have a voice. In that regard it’s HBO that offers the contrast, having given LeBron James a seemingly unfettered platform on The Shop.

But for now, that concern is hypothetical. In contrast, broadcasters face very real concerns about viewers and ratings, which explains their current stance. They are going to talk about the games and hope you watch. Hope you watch and smile. Hope you watch, smile, and watch again. That’s what they’re asking. If they could, they’d demand it.

NBC’s Rodney Harrison understands. The safety learned how to talk about nothing while playing for Bill Belichick. Faced with a question about the anthem during a preseason conference call, you could almost hear him slipping back into that mode. “I’m just looking forward to seeing some football,” he said. “That’s my answer.”

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