Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s Chief Media and Business Officer, said the league would defer to the TV networks on how anthem protests will be handled during 2018 game telecasts.

“You’ll have to talk to them,” he told a handful of reporters from outlets including Deadline after the NFL’s season preview event at the NFL Experience in New York’s Times Square. “It’s their decision about what they do or don’t do. Traditionally, they haven’t really covered the anthem. There’s this perception that it’s always covered, but it’s actually not, other than certain cases, which they decide.”

The ongoing protests over police brutality have seen many players continue to take a knee, even though the NFL in the off-season approved a policy that includes fines for protesting players. The demonstrations have roiled some fans and President Donald Trump, and some network executives have cited the phenomenon as one of many factors that have hurt ratings.

The broadcast partners of the NFL — ESPN, CBS, NBC and Fox — have all indicated they will only cover the anthem in cases where there is news value. ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro restated that existing policy earlier this month for Monday Night Football, only to see Trump rip the network again in an email to his supporters.

“I think you’ve heard their statements, which are pretty self-explanatory,” Rolapp shrugged. “I don’t think there are any big changes. And off we go.”

Tony Dungy, left, and Rodney Harrison.
NBC

A media conference call held shortly after the NFL event by NBC for Football Night in America, the top-rated studio show that will open up the regular season next Thursday also touched on the anthem controversy.

“The league could do a much better job of working with the players and taking it away from the anthem itself,” said Tony Dungy, a former coach and longtime NBC analyst. “If I were still coaching, I’d have a meeting with my players, the first meeting of the year” to find out what issues are on the players’ minds that would compel them to protest. “Most players would welcome that,” Dungy said. “What they want is a voice. They’re trying to help their communities out.”

Studio host and occasional play-by-play man Mike Tirico, who was on the conference call, did not offer any comment. Rodney Harrison, a former player who has long been paired with Dungy as a studio analyst, was the only one to address the anthem besides Dungy. “I’m just looking forward to playing some football,” he said. “That’s my answer.”

In Rolapp’s interview, he touched on a range of other topics, including the introduction of mobile game carriage, which will dramatically expand the scope of viewing. Previously, mobile viewing was only available to Verizon subscribers opting into premium packages, but now all in-market games and prime-time contests will be available free via the NFL app.

In terms of how much traction will come in mobile or how that viewing will affect ratings, “We have no expectations,” Rolapp said. “Television dwarfs digital but [the latter] is incremental by definition.”

Rules changes aimed at increasing player safety, especially the new restrictions on tackling, have prompted grumbling from some fans heading into the season. But Rolapp said viewers will grow accustomed to the less-than-Butkus-esque game action.

“I’m old enough to remember the ‘in the grasp’ rule and how that was going to end football,” he said. “Now the very same people throw nachos at the TV if it’s not called.”

Over time, he continued, “People get used to it. We have some things to work out. … It’s our job to educate them.”