How the National Anthem Controversy Is Reshaping the World of Sports TV

The national anthem controversy is reshaping the world of sports TV for one simple reason: it has muddied the waters between the political world and the sports world. A hot-button issue like the national anthem controversy forced people to choose sides – and it’s now clear that sports TV networks are unwilling to take a principled stand if it means taking a direct hit to their pocketbooks.

As long as cable TV networks like ESPN were literally minting money, they could afford to take sides. But now, at a time when subscribers are down and cable TV viewers are cutting the cord forever, sports TV networks are doing everything in their power to hold on to all and any viewers. In short, ESPN and other sports networks are willing to compromise on the type of content they offer and how they present it, all in the name of ratings and subscribers.

The national anthem controversy goes from sideshow to national debate topic

Starting in 2016, the national anthem controversy – sparked almost entirely by the decision by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the national anthem instead of standing – had been bubbling over. A handful of other athletes took the similar step of kneeling instead of standing during sporting events, but it was mostly a sidelight – not the main course. These acts of defiance received attention from networks like ESPN, but these networks could take a neutral stance on whether it was good or bad for professional sports.

However, when President Donald Trump weighed in on the matter, encouraging NFL owners to bench any players not standing for the national anthem during the season, the issue took on a life of its own. Suddenly, it was all over the news. It was front-page news, and people had to take sides. Sports TV networks began building up the drama of any sporting event they televised by pondering aloud, “Who’s going to kneel this week?” And people started debating what the act of kneeling really meant: Was it a sign of solidarity, a sign of protest, or a sign of disrespect?

NFL-national anthem

The Jemele Hill controversy: ESPN vs. the White House

To understand how deeply the national anthem controversy has started to reshape the world of sports TV, Exhibit A has to be the Jemele Hill controversy, involving the African-American host of “SC6,” the 6pm version of Sports Center featuring her and Michael Smith. The two are paid to have strong opinions about the world of sports – but not necessarily to have strong opinions about the world of politics and culture.

Jemele Hill pushed the limits of how far an on-air host could go by publicly tweeting that President Trump was a “white supremacist” who surrounded himself with other “white supremacists.” That, of course, did not go over well with the White House, with President Trump’s press team suggesting that such a comment was a “fireable offense” for ESPN. The strong insinuation was that ESPN should simply fire Jemele Hill.

As if that did not go far enough, Jemele Hill continued to push against the boundary of the permissible. Her next act was to go after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after he suggested that any Cowboys player not standing for the national anthem would be benched.

Jemele Hill punched right back, suggesting that outraged fans should start going after Jones’s advertisers – the way you’re going to hit hard against a member of the Top 1% of society is by going after their pocketbooks. Forced to clarify her tweets, Jemele Hill admitted that, yes, she was calling for a boycott to put pressure on Jones. In other words, she wanted consumers to boycott any company doing business with the Cowboys.

That, of course, set off the equivalent of a neutron bomb in ESPN HQ. ESPN has lucrative deals with professional sports leagues – including a $15.2 billion (billion!) deal to broadcast NFL games – and there was absolutely no way that the network could let its on-air talent get away with calling for a boycott via social media. ESPN promptly suspended her for 2 weeks. Moreover, ESPN went on record, saying that the network was “all about sports” and that it was not a “political organization.”

The national anthem controversy and the financial condition of cable TV

So why did ESPN take these extraordinary steps? The first thing you have to know is that the biggest name in sports TV has been hemorrhaging viewers for years. From 2015 to 2017, the number of ESPN subscribers has dropped 7.4%, to below the 88 million mark. In the world of cable TV, that’s a precipitous drop. Things got so bad, in fact, that the parent company of ESPN, Walt Disney, started looking for ways to cut costs at the vaunted sports network. That led to a much-publicized purge at ESPN, during which the network let go of expensive on-air and production talent, all in the name of protecting the bottom line.

So, at the very moment that the national anthem controversy was reaching its apex, ESPN and other sports TV networks were facing a dilemma: they were bleeding subscribers, and could little afford any new controversy that would result in even more losses. And they certainly didn’t want to wade into any Twitter war involving President Trump and the White House. ESPN suddenly had a very strong incentive to stop the politicization of sports.

Owners vs. players: Time for cable sports TV networks to take sides?

Even more awkwardly, the big sports networks (and especially ESPN) have always been first and foremost about the sports personalities – and not the owners. In the world that existed pre-Trump, ESPN actually defended the right of players to take the knee. Popular ESPN sports host Stephen A. Smith, for example, has largely been given carte blanche to say whatever he wanted about the Colin Kaepernick controversy. He publicly came out against the NFL owners, suggesting (or, at least, insinuating) that they were colluding to prevent Kaepernick from ever getting another job in the NFL. Every time a star QB went down with an injury, there was Stephen A. Smith, suggesting that Kaepernick might be a very nice fit.

But those days may be coming to a close. The last thing these cable sports networks want is to be portrayed as liberal and biased. Why? It has to do with the dollars involved. Is the NFL really going to sign another broadcast deal with ESPN if it constantly gets beaten up on the air, day after day? Are sports viewers really going to stick around if they sense that ESPN is pushing a non-patriotic agenda on them?

When it comes to the national anthem controversy, there are a lot of gray issues. There’s nothing black and white about it – except the players involved. What this huge controversy has done is reshape the media landscape, setting up clear “Do not trespass” signs around certain hot-button issues. At a time when people are cutting the cord, and a time when a single tweet can set off a media firestorm that reaches the White House, these are very interesting times indeed for sports TV broadcasters.