On Friday, ESPN announced that it will not broadcast the national anthem for Monday night football games this upcoming NFL season.
This comes after the NFL temporarily suspended its rule that players and team personnel must stand for the anthem if they are on the field; those opposed can stay in the locker room. A joint statement from the NFL and the NFLPA says “no new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks” until “a resolution to the anthem issue” is found.
However, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro said in a statement, “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.”
Pitaro went on to say, “It’s not our job to cover politics, purely, but we’ll cover the intersection of sports and politics. When something happens, when the Eagles are disinvited from the White House, or when someone takes a knee, if we think it’s newsworthy, we’re going to cover it.”
The contemporary intensity, and controversy, around the national anthem, kneeling and NFL games has displaced the history of why the nation’s song was first played at a football game. During the 1941-42 season, the NFL started playing the anthem before games in honor of WWII: following the precedent that MLB laid out a year and a half into WWI when the national anthem became the new standard to start baseball games. Three years later in 1945, the NFL commissioner at the time Elmer Layden said, “The playing of the national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”
According to Dave Zurin and Harry Edwards— strategists for Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and Colin Kaepernick— playing the national anthem before sporting events only became customary as a post- 9/11 military propaganda and recruiting agent. A Democracy Now newscast states that this tradition “comes out of a partnership between the Department of Defense and the National Football League.”
“They pay tens of millions of dollars to the National Football League to do these kinds of events, which speaks to, I think, this partnership that exists and how patriotism exists in these events.This is not some long tradition. I mean, this is something that’s a very short tradition and one that was absolutely geared with post-9/11 war-on-terror concern about the recruitment levels for the armed forces and seeing the NFL as a way to shore up those numbers, and paying billionaires money to make this a reality,” reports Democracy Now.
It comes as no surprise that, in this case, the anthem is reduced to war and the overcoming of the United States during WWI and II and after 9/11. And while the main two verses of the star-spangled banner are quite recognizable, the third stanza glorifying slavery and how “the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave” because “no refuge could save the hireling and slave// from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” never seems to make any mainstream renditions. So I agree with Layden, we must “never forget what [the anthem] stands for,” which, in effect, is the oppression and subjectivity of Black and brown people. And given this context, it’s increasingly easy to see why race, sports, and politics have always been connected dating back to 1942. Moreover, it would follow that current NFL players are protesting police brutality and how the criminal justice system disproportionately affects people of color by kneeling during the national anthem because the song is already a charged statement by nature.
In light of this, kneeling makes sense. And using the anthem as an avenue of protest is equitable because often times, the agent of oppression is used by the oppressed to speak truth to power in the face of the oppressors. What is questionable, however, is ESPN announcing that it won’t be airing the anthem this NFL season, even though in the past they have been sporadic in their coverage of the song anyways— Why make an announcement when there really isn’t new information to announce? They could’ve easily continued the same half-coverage they’ve been doing for years and no feathers would’ve been ruffled. Or, ESPN could’ve held a private meeting with the NFL to ensure that the two economic powerhouses were on the same page, if, like Pitaro stated, the network really wanted to provide the league a “courtesy.”
The good news, however, is that although ESPN may not broadcast the anthem, social media will. Attendees of games who believe in the power of protests, and honestly even those who are dismayed by it, will most likely use Facebook Live, Instagram or Snapchat stories, or post a video of any kneeling on Twitter for the entire country to see. And with the growing strength of social media, this coverage is on par with what would’ve been ESPN’s two minutes. It may not “break the internet,” but at the very least it will keep the conversation going for anyone who still doesn’t understand why kneeling continues. If you find yourself is this situation, I’d refer you to the insightful tweets of Shannon Sharpe who draws a parallel between kneeling for the anthem and wearing pink for breast cancer awareness.