ESPN says it will no longer broadcast pre-game ceremonies when it hosts “Monday Night Football” this NFL season, essentially depriving players who kneel in protest of the airtime they crave.
The network, owned by Disney, has been hemorrhaging viewers, and a steep decline in fans tuning out of NFL games, in order to avoid players’ protests, hasn’t helped. Initially, the sports-driven network tried to double down on its commitment to openly discussing the political purpose behind player protests, but, it seems, they’re now reconsidering their network-wide commitment to promoting “social justice.”
“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,” ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro told an Axios reporter late Friday.
“Again that could change. It’s unpredictable what could happen in the world but as of now, we’re not,” he continued. “We have communicated that back to the league. They have not asked but as a courtesy and good partners, we have let them know what our plans are.”
ESPN’s “blanket rule” against showing pre-game ceremonies has its exceptions. The network showed players kneeling during the national anthem in 2017, the Sunday after President Donald Trump lashed out at players taking part in a protest, started by the former 49ers second-string quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
In the past, ESPN has tuned out of the national anthem, opting instead to have a “discussion” among its Monday Night Football panelists about political matters. It seems that won’t happen this year, either. ESPN, Pitaro told reporters, is “not a political organization.”
“ESPN is not a political organization,” Pitaro told Axios. “It’s not our job to politics, purely, but we’ll cover the intersection of sports & politics. “When something happens, when Eagles disinvited from White House, when someone takes a knee, if we think newsworthy were going to cover it.”
Independent of the protests, Pitaro is also reportedly trying to mend fences with the NFL. not just with football fans.
This is all good news for fans, though it comes at least one season too late. NFL viewership declined considerably last season, nearly 10% across the board, in part because of changes in how fans consume media, but largely because of the kneeling protests, and the NFL’s seemingly total lack of control over its players. ESPN’s ratings declined 11%.