When President Donald Trump took the lectern at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on Tuesday, he wasted no time in going after one of his favorite targets: NFL players.
"You’re proud of our country," Trump said to cheers from the crowd. "You’re proud of our history, and unlike the NFL, you always honor and cherish our great American flag."
The NFL regular season doesn't start for two weeks, but politics are already a dominant storyline, sparked primarily by Trump's continued eagerness to use the issue to stir up support from his political base. Trump's rally appearance came the same day as the felony convictions of Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and the guilty pleas of Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer.
The renewed focus from the president comes after ESPN's recent media day, at which ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro was asked if he planned to air the national anthem. He responded that the network generally hadn't done so in prior years and had informed the league that it would avoid doing so this season. The network confirmed it did air the anthem three times during games that occurred during last year's hurricanes and after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
CBS has also opted not to air the anthem, while Fox has said it will air it on occasion, according to USA Today. NBC Sports said it still working out its schedule.
NBC Sports is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.
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The idea that the anthem has not traditionally been aired has done little to soften Trump's attacks. On Wednesday, Trump began a petition to pressure ESPN to air the national anthem ahead of its Monday night football games.
"ESPN has now decided it will no longer play the National Anthem before Monday Night Football," read the petition, sent by email from the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. "If 'America' is too offensive for anyone in our country, then what are they doing in America?"
In addition to the email campaign, the committee's website hosts a page that calls for people to sign up to "Denounce ESPN's Surrender."
"ESPN has decided to stop playing our great National Anthem because it’s too controversial," the page reads. "I need you to proudly defend America at a time when everyone wants to trash it. Tell ESPN to play America’s Anthem!"
Pitaro has recently emphasized that ESPN, which has recently been the subject of numerous controversies involving discussions of politics and its employees, is a sports network first and foremost. A spokeswoman for ESPN declined to comment on the petition.
Political debate has swirled around the NFL since 2016 when Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback at the time, knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. This year, the NFL introduced a rule that teams could be fined if players kneeled. The NFL later halted the rule's implementation.
Several NFL players kneeled and raised fists during the national anthems of preseason games this month.
The political controversy comes as the NFL has suffered a decline in TV ratings, which were down 10 percent to an average of 14.9 million viewers per game in 2018. The silver lining for the league and its media partners is that the audience decline did not affect advertising revenue. Advertisers spent $4.64 billion on NFL games last season, 10 percent more than the season before, according to data from the research firm Kantar Media.
"I think Donald J. Trump's flailing around to deflect attention is losing its potency with the American people on a daily basis," said one NFL advertising partner who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly. "I'm all in on NFL in 2018."
ESPN's first regular-season games are scheduled for Monday, Sept. 10 — a double-header featuring the New York Jets versus the Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Rams against the Oakland Raiders.