If we’re to take President Donald Trump’s crass and inflammatory words about protesting NFL players at face value, he must have desired to fire a couple of hundred of them Sunday, including at least a dozen Patriots. Probably a few broadcasters would be hit with Trump-mandated pink slips, too.
When President Trump, during a rally in Alabama Friday night, called a player who chose to kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest against police violence against minorities a son of a bitch who should be fired, the backlash around the league was immediate.
The comments were disavowed by countless players, commissioner Roger Goodell, and individual owners, including Robert Kraft, a friend of Trump’s, on Sunday morning. Trump doubled down on his comments with a tweet Sunday morning, encouraging fans to refuse to go to games and again suggesting firings and suspensions.
The maelstrom led to tremendous anticipation and curiosity regarding the breadth of the protests, how many more players might protest Sunday, how ownership and coaching staffs would react — and from a media standpoint, how the NFL’s broadcast partners would address and cover what felt like a potential tipping point in the conversation.
On CBS and Channel 4, it led to arguably the most compelling start to a Patriots broadcast since September 2001. As play-by-play voice Ian Eagle concisely explained the back story on Trump’s comments, the network showed the national anthem in full, as it did for all of its 1 p.m. games. (Fox did the same during its broadcasts.)
During the 1 minute and 45 seconds it took for singer Fran Rogers to complete his rendition at Gillette Stadium, the CBS cameras scanned both the Texans and Patriots sidelines, finding poignant image after poignant image. The Texans players linked arms and stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the sideline. J.J. Watt was shown four times during the anthem, twice before we ever saw what Tom Brady was doing. The cameras did eventually find Brady, a longtime friend of the president’s, a couple of brief times — linking arms with Phillip Dorsett, another with his hand over his heart. It made one wonder whether the president was watching.
But the most powerful images showed a group of Patriots — among them Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks, and Devin McCourty — kneeling in a tight group. I counted at least 16 players kneeling, but it may have been more — CBS only briefly showed a wider angle.
Every pregame studio show dedicated a significant amount of time to discussing Trump’s comments and the league’s reaction. CBS spent the first 25 minutes of “The NFL Today” on the subject, and ESPN’s “NFL Countdown” gave it at least 20 minutes. While I saw less of the Fox and NFL Network programs, it was apparent they were not giving it the short shrift. The usual backslapping jocularity was absent from all of the programs, at least in the first couple of segments.
CBS, which carries the AFC games and thus the bulk of Patriots telecasts, was especially thorough and interesting during “The NFL Today,” save for a weirdly vague interview with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. There’s no better studio anchor at navigating emotional topics than James Brown.
Jamie Erdahl broke the news during an interview with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin that his players would remain in the locker room during the anthem. (Tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran, did come out to the end of the tunnel.) Bill Cowher — Tomlin’s predecessor as Steelers coach — then explained that he would want the team to be out there if he were still the coach.
“Whether you’re kneeling and whether you are standing it’s an individual right,’’ said Cowher. “And I think it’s a stronger message than not going out there at all . . . So I respect his position, but I think it’s a stronger message. We can be united but we can think differently.”
The NFL’s broadcast partners should be satisfied with how it addressed and covered the situation. There were pointed and passionate comments across all networks. Here are three that stood out in particular:
Terry Bradshaw, Fox: “This is America. If our country stands for anything, it’s freedom. People died for that freedom. I’m not sure if our president understands those rights, that every American has the right to speak out and also to protest.”
Rex Ryan, ESPN: “I’m pissed off. I’ll be honest with you, I supported Donald Trump. When he asked me to introduce him at a rally in Buffalo, I did that. But I am reading these comments and it is appalling to me. And I am sure it is appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be. I mean, calling our players S.O.Bs and that kind of stuff, that is not the men that I know. The men I know in the locker room, I am proud to be associated with them.”
Charles Woodson, ESPN: “[Trump] has tried to hijack that American flag. And for us, for African-American people, what we tried to say, what [Colin] Kaepernick was trying to say, is we want that flag to cover all of us . . . This is choose-your-side Sunday. It really is. And what side are you on?”