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Trump starts petition to get 'spineless' ESPN to televise anthem

San Francisco 49ers players kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif.

NHAT V. MEYER/BAY AREA NEWS GROUP/TNS

By DES BIELER | The Washington Post | Published: August 24, 2018

After criticizing ESPN for planning on not televising the national anthem before "Monday Night Football" games this season, President Donald Trump ratcheted up pressure on the network Wednesday. He initiated a petition demanding that ESPN, which he described as "spineless," show pregame performances of the song.

In an email sent out by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee composed of Trump's presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee, the president said, "I was the first person to sign this petition. Now I need you to follow my lead and be the second."

"Just after we heard a sitting governor trash America, ESPN has now decided it will no longer play the National Anthem before Monday Night Football," Trump said. "If 'America' is too offensive for anyone in our country, then what are they doing in America?"

"I'm calling on you to join me in denouncing this SPINELESS surrender to the politically correct liberal mob," he added.

Trump was referring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, who said last week, "We're not going to make America great again; it was never that great." While Cuomo's office subsequently clarified those comments, Trump seized on them at a rally Tuesday in West Virginia, where he also castigated ESPN.

The president of ESPN, Jimmy Pitaro, had said last week, "We generally have not broadcast the anthem, and I don't think that will change this year. Our plan going into this year is to not broadcast the anthem."

Pitaro added at the time that the policy could "change," saying, "It's unpredictable what could happen in the world, but as of now, we're not. We have communicated that back to the NFL. They have not asked, but as courtesy and good partners, we have let them know what our plans are."

Renditions of the national anthem before NFL games have gained scrutiny over the past two seasons and into the early part of this one because some players have staged protests against racial injustice and police brutality during the song. The demonstrations have included kneeling during the anthem and standing with a raised fist, and Trump has frequently criticized the protests in sharp terms, questioning the players' patriotism and respect for the military and, on one occasion, calling for team owners to fire any "son of a bitch" who protests in such a manner.

Trump's recent comments on ESPN and the NFL came shortly after his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to tax fraud and campaign finance violations and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted on a number of tax- and bank-fraud charges. Trump sees his vehement opposition to the player protests as a "very winning, strong issue" for him, according to testimony Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reportedly gave earlier this year in a deposition.

"Tell everybody, you can't win this one," Jones reportedly said Trump told him. "This one lifts me."

For the most part, TV networks have not shown pregame anthem performances, preferring to offer viewers analyses of the upcoming matchups before going to contests just before kickoff. An exception came last September, when Trump's "son of a bitch" comments sparked widespread demonstrations by players, as well as some team owners, at that weekend's NFL games, including one before "MNF" that ESPN televised.

Like ESPN, CBS does not plan to televise the anthem this season, the same approach it has taken in previous years, according to USA Today; Fox Sports also will not regularly broadcast the pregame performance, but will consider it for special events, such as Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and the playoffs.

At Tuesday's rally, Trump told his audience, "You're proud of our country, you're proud of our history, and unlike the NFL, you always honor and cherish our great American flag. It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful, beautiful national anthem and defending our flag, they've decided that they just won't broadcast when they play the national anthem. We don't like that."

A website enabling supporters to sign the petition had this message from the president: "ESPN has decided to stop playing our great National Anthem because it's too controversial. I need you to proudly defend America at a time when everyone wants to trash it."

The protests have also become an issue in the Texas Senate race between Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, with O'Rourke recently saying, "Non-violently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it. That is why they are doing it.

"And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place."

"When Beto O'Rourke says he can't think of anything more American - well, I got to tell you, I can," Cruz said in response.

On the job for five months, Pitaro has been trying to keep his network out of the politically charged discussions in which it has occasionally been embroiled since Trump won the presidency, partly in an effort to smooth relations with the NFL, an important source of content.

"If you ask me is there a false narrative out there, I will tell you ESPN being a political organization is false," he told The Washington Post recently. "I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely."

An ESPN spokesman told The Post on Wednesday that the network was declining comment on the petition circulated by the Trump campaign.

The protests have been a thorny issue for the NFL, in large part because of Trump's repeated attacks on them. In May, the league announced a policy mandating that players "on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem," promising fines from the league for teams whose players violated the policy and allowing individual teams to create their own rules about impermissible conduct during the anthem.

The policy also had a provision allowing players to choose to remain in their respective locker rooms during the song. Shortly after it was announced, Trump said of the policy, "I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still I think it's good."

The league placed the policy on hold in July to work out a new arrangement with the NFL players' union, prompting Trump to tweet that the league's "$40,000,000 Commissioner," Roger Goodell, "must now make a stand." The president suggested that the first time a player knelt during the anthem, he should be kept out of the game and that a second such act should result in the player being suspended without pay for the rest of the season.

Negotiations between the NFL and the union are still unfolding, meaning that the original anthem policy, which allowed players to stage protests, is still in effect. Some players have done just that before preseason games, leading to a tweet earlier this month from Trump in which he urged players to be "happy, be cool!"

"A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest," he added at the time. "... Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!"
 

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