Ever since NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began engaging in quiet protest during the 2016 pre-season by remaining seated or kneeling on the sidelines during the playing of the U.S. national anthem -- a symbolic act that many other NFL players began emulating soon afterwards -- TV networks that air NFL games have been placed in something of a quandary. Should they include the playing of the national anthem in their television coverage, thereby risking criticism for providing a platform to protesters? Or should they omit the national anthem portion of the pre-game ceremonies and subject themselves to charges of being "unpatriotic"?
Different networks have dealt with the issue in varying ways. In October 2017, Fox Sports clarified that their "standard procedure" was not to show the playing of the national anthem live during "regionalized coverage of NFL games." NBC announced in January 2018 that during the upcoming Super Bowl, " if there are players that choose to kneel, they will be shown live." ESPN, home of Monday Night Football, sometimes aired the national anthem before games during the 2017-18 and sometimes didn't:
[T]he anthem [was] shown in week one, on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, in week three after President Donald Trump ramped up his criticism of players who used the anthem to protest racial and social injustice in America, and in week four, after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
In August 2018, however, comments by ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro prompted headlines such as "ESPN Says It Won't Air National Anthem Before Monday Night Football Games," although what Pitaro said was really a statement of ESPN's existing policy rather than the announcement of a new one:
"We generally have not broadcasted the anthem and I don't think that will change this year. Our plan going into this year is to not broadcast the anthem."
"Again that could change. It's unpredictable what could happen in the world but as of now, we're not. We have communicated that back to the NFL. They have not asked, but as a courtesy and good partners we have let them know what our plans are."
"It's not our job to cover politics, purely, but we'll cover the intersection of sports & politics. When something happens, when the Eagles disinvited from White House, or when someone takes a knee, if we think newsworthy were going to cover it."
Indeed, ESPN Senior Vice President for Event & Studio Production Stephanie Druley reiterated that it "has always been our standing operating procedure" to show the national anthem ceremony only when it occurs in conjunction with something else newsworthy (e.g., a moment of silence to honor victims of tragedies):
She explained the network only aired the anthem three times last year when athletes were protesting because of simultaneous news events — a moment of silence for a hurricane, a moment of silence for the Las Vegas shooting and at the Dallas vs. Arizona game.
"We've seen the data from our fans that they like the game and that's what they want. So that's where we will keep our focus," Druley said.