ESPN will not show the national anthem during “Monday Night Football” broadcasts this year, Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN president, revealed. Asked by a reporter if he spoke to the NFL about the rule changes and the national anthem and if he would consider “turning the cameras on an athlete that’s kneeling for the anthem,” Pitaro replied, “We generally have not broadcasted the anthem and I don’t think there’s going to be any change this year. Our plan going into this year is to not broadcast the anthem.”
No, this isn’t an ethics quiz, It’s not because I know the answer. ESPN should be airing the anthem and the likely protests they will include, because of the likely protests they will include. That may surprise you, since Ethics Alarms has been unequivocal in its position that the players are paid to play on Sundays, not exploit games for half-baked and incoherent political statements, that they should be made to observe that distinction, and properly criticized and penalized when they do not. That, however, is a different ethics issue than whether a sports news organization that covers a football game is obligated to also cover news-worthy occurrences that happen during that game. It is. Pitaro’s policy is wrong.
He also pointed out that ESPN usually doesn’t broadcast the anthem. Neither do major league baseball broadcasts unless something or someone special is involved, for the same reason: they sell advertising time instead. Why should the TV audience be able to participate in a brief ritual to honor their nation (which was never that great, as Governor Cuomo reminded us) when there is money to be made? I miss the anthem—my dad sometimes sang it, horribly off-key because he was tone deaf, right in our living room, drowning out Whitney Houston or the Marine Band as he did—but since it’s always the same music, the decision is defensible although I disagree with it.
Correction, though: it was always the same, until the Kaepernick Klones started using it to grandstand against the nation, or its police, or the President, or something. Then the anthem ritual became news, welcome or not. Which teams and players were kneeling? Were they all black, or were their white team mates supporting them? Was some other gesture than kneeling being used? How did the crowd react? These questions are now clearly part of the analysis of the game, because the news reporting on the game will include then, and have every single time such protests have occurred since Kaepernick first instituted his incoherent protest.
Where once ESPN’s decision to stiff the anthem was justifiable on the grounds that it was a routine part of the pre-game that held no news or sports reporting value, that reasoning no longer holds. Now avoiding the anthem is effectively political censorship and an abdication of ESPN’s duty to report newsworthy events that occur in front of its cameras. It has a duty to its audience to cover the whole game, not just the parts that the audience expects to see. The fact that the anthem is part of the game is why the protests are inappropriate and annoying; it is also why, if they are occurring, the audience has a right to know about them, irritating or not.
We know how ESPN is thinking, right? Ratings for the NFL have fallen since players have begun falling to their knees, so the idea is to redact this feature from the broadcast. This is no more justifiable, however, than not showing the at-bats of players like Robinson Cano in their MLB broadcasts, because many viewers, like me, find the presence of steroid cheats on the field nauseating. When Cano is part of the game, he needs to be in the broadcast. Controversial, ill-considered, intrusive and divisive protests are now also part of the game, as long as the NFL allows them to continue. Too bad it hurts your ratings, Jimmy.
You have to show the good with the bad.