CBS Sports on Sunday morning showed it can cover more than just games in its handling of actions by players, coaches and owners during the national anthem at the start of the London game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Ravens.
Outside of heroic coverage by ABC Sports when international politics upended the Olympics, broadcast teams on hand to cover sporting events are often not up to dealing with real news.
Sorry, if that upsets some sports fans and sportscasters, but it’s the truth.
But the CBS crew on hand came through impressively as players reacted during the anthem to remarks and tweets made by President Trump over the weekend about how players who take a knee should be handled by owners. I’ll skip the vulgar term he used to describe such players, but he said owners should fire or suspend them. And if the owners don’t, Trump urged fans to boycott the NFL.
To its credit, three seconds into the start of the singing of the anthem by Noah Stewart, the CBS cameras were moving up and down the sidelines showing viewers all of the various responses from the teams. They showed the Ravens on the sidelines who took a knee, including Terrell Suggs, Mike Wallace, Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine. Former Raven linebacker Ray Lewis was there, and CBS showed him also taking a knee, too.
The CBS cameras also showed many of the others Ravens standing with their arms interlocked in a statement of solidarity. Coach John Harbaugh was standing with that group, and CBS made sure nobody missed it.
They showed the Jaguars sideline as well with team owner, Shahid Khan, also standing arm in arm with his players.
The visual images were powerful and eloquent, and CBS let them speak for themselves until the singing of our national anthem and England’s ended. I felt as if CBS kept its cameras away from nothing.
And I thought about all the games I have seen, particularly regional baseball broadcasts, in which anything touching on politics or protest is kept from the fans. Or, if the folks in the booth do start talking about what is not being seen, their words are an embarrassment as they chide anyone who would do anything to disrupt a game.
Not on CBS Sunday.
Play-by-play announcer Andrew Catalon came in immediately and expertly gave viewers all the background they needed to understand the significance of what they had just seen.
“We just got our first glimpse of what figures to be an eye-opening day in the NFL,” Catalon said.
“Over the last 48 hours President Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who protested the national anthem. His comments were immediately met with resistance from Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL Players Association and some owners,” he added.
“And now, in the first NFL game since the president’s comments, we saw many players take a knee of both sidelines. we saw other players locking arms in unity.”
Catalon then asked analyst and former NFL player James Lofton for his take.
“To see both teams with locked arms — even the owner of the Jaguars standing in the middle with locked arms — and players taking a knee, the unity is there,” Lofton said. “The message from the president was heard loud and clear. And the response, I think, is equally loud and clear.”
Catalon called on sideline reporter Alex Flanagan, who had done her homework and was all over the story.
“... The reaction of the players has been strong — the people I spoke to down here on the field. I visited with John Harbaugh a little while ago and he said he didn’t tell his players what they could or couldn’t do. He said his men are leaders in their communities and on the football field. And he knew whatever their reactions were today they would be carefully thought out. We’re seeing more solidarity, maybe more than ever before, on this issue.”
Nothing else the CBS team did the rest of the day mattered one-tenth as much. Sorry, sports fans who believe the games are something holy handed down by a guy in a beard on a mountain, and should never be muddied by the reality of American life today.
I sang the praises of Lofton and Catalon last week, and they did nothing during the call of the game itself today to make me change my mind.
One of Lofton’s two keys to the game for the Ravens was to “keep Joe Flacco clean.” He said if the Ravens offensive line failed to protect Flacco, it was going to get ugly. I guess the final score of 44-7 qualifies as ugly, no?
The CBS portion of the production had audio problems at a couple of points, and the replays were almost non-existant. Viewers got almost nothing in replays. Once they rolled the wrong replay after a big play and I wrote in my notebook, “Something is not always better than nothing.”
But, in the final analysis, none of it matters compared to what Catalon, Flanagan, Lofton and the production team did during and immediately after the national anthem.
The president’s tweets and comments might have taken us to a tipping point in the relationships among the NFL, its fans, the rich people who own the teams, our racial history and the powers that be in this country.
What happened before the kickoff at Wembley Stadium Sunday might turn out to be only an early skirmish, but CBS showed it could cover sports with an unblinking eye even when it goes beyond games and becomes politics and culture.