Protests during the national anthem prior to NFL games aren’t ending any time soon, but you’d be excused for thinking they’re an old story. After a weekend where protests dominated the national conversation, at least two major networks are throttling back on airing the national anthem and any associated protests or objections prior to NFL games.
On one hand, that’s an understandable business decision. The anthem doesn’t comprise actual game time, and those pregame ads aren’t going to pay for themselves. But on the other, the protests during the anthem, as well as the blowback, are still legitimate news stories. And since Fox Sports, NBC, ABC and ESPN aren’t supposed to be propaganda outlets for either the NFL or the White House, they ought to be showing the entirety of the anthems and associated protests until they no longer have intrinsic news value … and we’re nowhere near that point yet.
Fox Sports showed a wide shot of the anthem that included several Miami Dolphins players kneeling prior to Sunday’s London game, but didn’t show the anthems prior to the early slate of games. “As we have in previous broadcasts of NFL games from London, Fox will show the National Anthem as well as ‘God Save the Queen’ live,” the network said in a statement to Sports Illustrated. “As is standard procedure, regionalized coverage of NFL game airing on FOX this Sunday will not show the National Anthem live; however, our cameras are always rolling and we will document the response of players and coaches on the field.”
ESPN told The Sporting News that it will not be showing the anthem prior to Monday night’s Redskins-Chiefs game. NBC and CBS both showed the anthem prior to their broadcasts on Sunday. [UPDATE: ESPN will show the anthem, in addition to a moment of silence, to honor the victims in the Las Vegas shooting.]
The problem with those rationales is that we’re no longer living in a world of “standard procedure.” When the President of the United States targets the NFL itself and makes NFL protests a key plank in his public appeals for two weekends running, the anthem isn’t just a pregame ritual; it’s the centerpiece of an organic news story. “I just want to watch the games” isn’t an option at the moment, and for that, angry fans can point fingers at the field, at the stadiums’ executive level, at the White House and at their televisions.
Please note that we’re not suggesting the networks show only protesting players. Far from it. If fans are booing the players; if fans are igniting jerseys; heck, if fans are standing in beer lines yawning during the anthem, show it all. This is a story with many sides, many angles, and all deserve equal consideration … if not necessarily equal weight.
The problem, of course, is that images carry far more power than words, and carefully chosen images can shape the narrative in a way that bears little resemblance to truth. Suppose the camera focuses in on one player kneeling, when in truth the rest of the team is standing. Or suppose the camera focuses on one fan holding up a sign supporting the players, while all around unseen others are booing. The bias — yep, we said it — inherent in any communication can result in distortion, particularly when we’re talking flashpoint issues of patriotism, free speech and systemic racism.
But that’s where skillful editorial discretion comes into play. Presenting actual images from the game is preferable to an after-the-fact recounting, which in turn is preferable to simply ignoring the issue entirely.
The broadcast networks and the NFL are partners, engaged in a mutually beneficial and profitable relationship. But that doesn’t mean the networks should be beholden to the NFL, either explicitly or implicitly. The networks shouldn’t act as mouthpieces for the players to air their grievances, but neither should they engage in keep-the-peace editorial wallpapering by declining to show any protests.
Yes, showing the protests will make some fans uncomfortable or enraged. Yes, many will tune out, and some might not return. But showing the protests fulfills a journalistic responsibility to tell the full story, which is more important than ever in a world of #fakenews, propaganda and your angry uncle’s Facebook feed.
More important, showing the anthem and its protests treats viewers like adults, allowing them to form their own opinions and make their own decisions. Viewers have the choice:
• Sit through a two-minute anthem before a three-hour football game, understanding (or maybe learning) that there are Americans with worldviews other than their own;
• Take a principled, and defensible, stand not to watch any football at all;
• Tune in right at kickoff, and skip the televised anthem entirely, no judgment here;
• Plug their ears and tune out in a tantrum because they saw something that upset them.
The protests should force everyone involved in this entire affair — players, team owners, NFL, fans —into some self-examination, to ask even uncomfortable questions about one’s own beliefs. (Yes, we know how likely it is that those hard questions will get asked.) But the media’s also part of the problem here … and, one way or another, it’ll need to be part of the solution.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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