ESPN: no national anthem broadcast before NFL games this year

At ESPN’s football media day, encompassing both college football and the NFL, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro announced that the network does not plan to show the National Anthem during its broadcasts of either college or professional football this season.

The move comes as the world’s largest sports television network attempts to steer around the complicated issue resulting from the backlash against NFL players who have protested racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the anthem for the past two years.

ESPN currently airs Monday Night Football during the regular season, one wild-card round playoff game, plus the Pro Bowl, an all-star game of sorts for the NFL.

The non-ESPN networks with the rights to NFL broadcasts have, in general, not been in the habit of showing national anthem performances, largely due to time considerations, as NFL regular-season games have a specific start time (around 1 pm and 4 pm Eastern.)

Before 2009, NFL players weren’t even on the field for the playing of the national anthem (which is how it generally works in college football). In this performance from 2015, you can see the players stationed along the sideline during the anthem.

While ESPN has aired the anthem occasionally before Monday Night Football games, like this one from 2016, the network announced prior to the 2017 season that it had decided against showing it in the majority of games, choosing instead to highlight specific storylines of the game ahead.

The National Anthem was only broadcast during three games on ESPN in 2017: on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, before a Dallas Cowboys-Arizona Cardinals matchup (in which Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones joined players in kneeling), and before a Washington Redskins-Kansas City Chiefs game that took place following a mass shooting in Las Vegas.

The NFL has been widely criticized for its handling of the anthem protests, not least by President Donald Trump, who tweeted that declining NFL ratings are a direct result of the protests. Many have put forward evidence, though, that the ratings decline is more a result of cord-cutting, too many games (oversaturation), and injuries to popular players that make popular teams less competitive.

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