“With the news leading into Sunday, it was clearly newsworthy to cover the national anthem live prior to last night's game,” NBC Sports spokesman Dan Masonson told me.
The “news leading into Sunday” was, of course, President Trump's declaration that he believes players who refuse to stand for the anthem should be fired, a sentiment he shared at a rally for Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) Friday and on Twitter the next day.
The president grew angry, to the point of cursing, while delivering remarks in Huntsville: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b‑‑‑‑ off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”
The response from players was, indeed, “clearly newsworthy,” as Masonson said. But that was no guarantee that the networks would cover the protests live. They could have ignored the demonstrations and plausibly claimed that they were not denying the players a platform — just doing what they usually do.
In fact, CNN reported that CBS and Fox, which broadcast the NFL's afternoon games, originally planned to uphold the usual practice of breaking down X's and O's until kickoff but changed their minds.
These are significant decisions. Omitting protests from live telecasts would enable fans to make NFL games the three-hour escapes from politics many desire. Showing the protests makes such escapes impossible.
Trump encouraged fans to boycott NFL games, but there is little evidence that they did so Sunday. CBS reported that its ratings were 4 percent higher than during the same week last season.
Ratings for NBC's prime-time game were down 10 percent, but the decline could be attributed to the contest's lack of competitiveness. With four minutes left in the third quarter, the Washington Redskins led the Oakland Raiders by three touchdowns and ultimately won by 17 points. Last year's game was slightly closer and involved teams from two of the country's top five media markets, Chicago and Dallas.
Kaepernick, who played for the San Francisco 49ers when he began sitting or kneeling during the anthem, was not asked by reporters about his protest until after the third game at which he refused to stand. The initial inattention might be explained, in part, by the fact that the games were preseason scrimmages, but it is notable, too, that his earliest demonstrations could not be seen by TV viewers.
Now, the players carrying on for Kaepernick, who remains unsigned, are in the TV spotlight.