NFL pregame shows have to walk a thin line between news and promotion. While they’ve got to acknowledge major news stories in the league, their chief purpose is to set the stage for upcoming games. Stories tend to be of the uplifting, inspirational, motivational variety.
But what happens when one of the biggest NFL stories in years is anything but uplifting and motivational? With plans in motion across the NFL to acknowledge the need for social justice and police reform, NFL pregame shows and announcers faced a range of choices:
1. Whether to acknowledge the social justice movement at all;
2. How to acknowledge it, i.e. how much weight to give the movement in the pregame broadcast;
3. How to acknowledge the segment of NFL fans who don’t want politics intruding on their sports.
CBS leaned hard into the story, opening “The NFL Today” with a montage of recent events involving protests of the police, including images of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims, along with testimony from players and coaches. The montage smoothly segued into a brief NFL summer recap, touching on topics like Joe Burrow and Tom Brady.
The CBS crew, including Bill Cowher, Phil Simms, Nate Burleson and Boomer Esiason, then went straight at one of the more compelling stories from Thursday night’s opener: the way fans in Kansas City booed the teams’ show of unity long after the national anthem.
“The demonstrations turned the conversation,” Burleson said, “but if the conversation doesn’t turn to action, then it’s quite pointless.” (Burleson later followed up with a one-on-one conversation with the Ravens’ Calais Campbell about the Baltimore Ravens’ statement seeking action from the U.S. Senate on a bill seeking justice in policing.)
“If all NFL owners unite with the players,” Simms agreed, “they can create change.”
It was former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, however, who took the most direct approach. “Fans, please don’t be judgmental today,” he said. “Listen to the statements these teams are making. This is not about the flag. I love this country, but we can all do better.”
ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” offered the least direct focus on the protests, conflating them and the pandemic in a short, mid-show segment. The show featured a short clip narrated by Richard Sherman entitled “We Are Here” that touched on the pandemic and the protests. Afterward, Tedy Bruschi and Randy Moss offered perspective that touched on a range of issues.
“Realize that under those helmets,” Bruschi said, “these guys are going through a lot.”
“I don’t want [protests] to be verbal. We need change, we need action,” Moss said. “If we want change, America, we gotta get off our asses and vote.”
Over on Fox, two of the network’s most notable commentators said they regretted the approach they’d taken during Colin Kaepernick’s initial kneeling.
“Four years ago, I missed the boat. I wish I’d done more,” Michael Vick said. “I was the kind of guy who sat back and didn’t pay attention to the magnitude of the situation. I always thought, ‘It’s going to get better, it’s going to get better. You know what? It never got better.”
Howie Long was even more forceful. “I’m embarrassed to say that the very first time Colin Kaepernick took a knee I thought, ‘Why during the national anthem?’ Because for a person who looks like me, this is the greatest country in the world. For the last 400 years, that hasn’t been the reality for African Americans.
“It’s a time for change,” Long added. “If you can’t see that, you’re either uninformed or a lost soul.”
As with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” crew on Thursday night’s opener, the broadcast teams generally spoke with one voice, with all commentators on all the many panels chiming in with affirming messages. Their message, agree or disagree, was this: for now, nobody’s sticking to sports. If that’s all you want out of the NFL this year, you’re out of luck.
In early action Sunday, there was little to no focus on social justice, aside from the “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” end zone messages visible in wide shots. For the most part, once the players took the field, the focus was football alone.
Absent more breaking news — like, say, an NBA-style walkout — it’s likely that the networks will gradually scale back their coverage of the protests. Attention at that point will focus on what happens next: how the players follow up, and how fans, governments and corporations respond to players’ demands for change.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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