Three weeks ago, the NFL's partner TV networks refused to show angry fans booing protesting players. Now, these worried networks are refusing to show any protests during the national anthem at all.
The TV partners flushed players' historic social justice protests down the memory hole in Week 6.
Protests? What protests?
There were virtually no live shots of NFL players sitting, kneeling or standing Sunday during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," much less footage of fans booing players.
Instead, CBS, Fox and NBC chose to stay in commercial breaks during the pregame presentation of the flag and anthem. Once they returned from commercial, network play-by-play announcers and analysts paid little or no attention to what players did on the field.
ESPN planned to follow a similar playbook for Monday night's telecast of Colts-Titans, sources say.
The TV networks traditionally don't show the anthem except before the Super Bowl and other special occasions. But given news interest about which players were standing and which were kneeling, the networks changed their policies this season.
NBC's first TV shot of the 2017 season showed cornerback Marcus Peters sitting out the anthem before the Chiefs-Patriots Week 1 season opener. ESPN showed player protests for social justice in Weeks 3 and 4. All of the NFL's TV partners showed the anthem live in Week 3 when hundreds of players, coaches and owners kneeled or linked arms on the field.
You can't blame the NFL TV partners for being worried. Through Week 5, the NFL TV numbers were down 7.2 percent, according to Nielsen data. That drop came on top of a 7 percent downturn last season. Through Week 5 of the 2017 season, NFL games averaged 15.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s down 7.42 percent from an average of 16.371 million viewers through the same period of the 2016 season, and 18 percent down from the average of 18.438 million viewers through the first five weeks of the 2015 season.
Two angry groups of fans have taken to social media to denounce the NFL. There's #NoKaepernickNoNFL fans, who vow to boycott games until the blackballed Colin Kaepernick gets a job. Then there are #BoycottNFL fans, who believe the protests are un-American and unpatriotic.
The Week 6 TV numbers brought mixed news. CBS says overnight TV ratings for Steelers-Chiefs rose 7 percent from Cowboys-Bengals last season. Overnight ratings for Giants-Broncos on NBC rose 21 percent from Colts-Texans the year before. According to SportsBusiness Daily, the Steelers-Chiefs 14.0 overnight is CBS's best figure to date — but is the lowest Week 6 national window, regardless of network, since 2006.
As the league gathers with its players Tuesday in New York, the NFL clearly wants to get back to football.
The league's TV business partners have gotten the memo. Their collective see-no-protest, hear-no-protest approach toward demonstrations during the national anthem will likely continue for the rest of the season.