By David Z. Morris
October 1, 2017

Fox Sports says it will not air the national anthem for most of Sunday’s NFL games.

Last week, following critical comments from President Donald Trump, hundreds of players and other team staffers kneeled before or during the anthem, in solidarity with ongoing protests against U.S. police violence and as a rebuke to the president.

Those player protests continued Sunday morning before a game in London between the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints.

But Fox told Sports Illustrated that the London game is the only one that will air the anthem on TV. Fox said in a statement that its decision not to air the anthems is standard procedure for regional broadcasts, though many of last week’s player protests were broadcast live.

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Fox’s statement also said, however, that “our cameras are always rolling and we will document the response of players and coaches on the field.” As of early Sunday afternoon, it was unclear how the network will “document” the protests without airing the anthem.

How to strike the right editorial balance on this issue — acknowledging the protests, without dwelling on them — was a major topic of debate for broadcasters even before this season started. There is evidence that the protests, inaugurated last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, are contributing to slumping NFL viewership numbers — though team owners and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have shown a united front in defending players’ right to use the anthem as a platform for political dissent.

As Fortune detailed last week, the league can afford to take the moral high ground, because broadcasters like Fox are locked into long-term contracts for the right to broadcast games. As ratings decline, it’s Fox, NBC, CBS, and ESPN that stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising dollars, while the league itself is somewhat insulated. That might motivate Fox to downplay the protests in its broadcasts.

But even that would be unlikely to have a dramatic positive effect on ratings. In surveys far predating last week’s explosion of protests, viewers have cited player protests as just one among a variety of reasons for tuning out, with concussions, domestic abuse scandals, and weak games almost as important as of last year.

 

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