Browns anthem protest.

A key NFL storyline over the last year-plus has been anthem protests (like the Cleveland Browns’ preseason one seen above), and a big question has been how game broadcasters are planning to cover them. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch talked to producers and executives from all four networks with NFL rights, and they all provided similar answers; they’re not likely to start showing the anthem live or spend huge amounts of time discussing or opining on protests, but they will probably present coverage of any protests (especially early in the season). Here are some of their answers along those lines:

“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…”

…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. 

…“I think we all expect something to happen,” said ESPN [producer Tim] Corrigan. “…We are reporting on news in front of us if something happens.”

All of those people emphasized that they’re not planning to go heavy on anthem coverage, though. In most cases, they’ll be reporting on protests after the fact (as there’s usually a commercial break during the anthem) and just mentioning that they happened. Corrigan, who’s set to produce the late MNF game called by Beth Mowins and Rex Ryan, said they might ask Ryan for his opinion on-air, and/or have their sideline reporters pass on anthem details they see. Gaudelli said “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.” And McManus said CBS encourages announcers to express their opinions, including on this topic, but concludes “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.”

This feels like probably about the right balance. Televising every anthem live and focusing in on protesters would seem excessive (and bring Jason Whitlock’s “Anthem Zone” joke to life), as would having the broadcast teams repeatedly opine on it in depth. And the anthem protests have many firmly entrenched on both sides, and fans from both of those sides will be watching the game, so strong opinions on protests one way or the other during the game broadcast would likely alienate a chunk of the viewing audience. (And we’ll see if the mentioned opinions from the likes of Ryan do just that.)

At the same time, the anthem protests are a big story, and as Zyontz tells Deitsch, they’re going to be a big part of the sports media discussion all week. Ignoring them completely would feel foolish too, and would certainly draw its own criticism. We’ll see how these broadcasters’ efforts to cover the anthem go and what backlash they draw, but from these quotes at least, it seems like they’re trying to find a balance that will work. The question is if they’ll actually be able to walk that line successfully.

[Sports Illustrated]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.