ESPN Ombudsman: Disregard for anthem

October, 22, 2009

ESPN Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer took some time to weigh in about Saturday's "College Football GameDay" telecast at the Cotton Bowl. Here's Ohlmeyer's take on what happened before kickoff:

ESPN's "College Football GameDay" kicks off festivities on Saturdays in the fall. It's a well produced examination of the day's key matchups, with informative features and pertinent interviews. The knowledgeable, amiable hosts dispense facts, insights and opinions live from campuses around the country, while capturing the excitement and enthusiasm that surrounds the games.

The Oct. 17 telecast preceded the Texas-Oklahoma game and was hosted from a set on the sidelines in the Cotton Bowl. While a celebrity guest provided his predictions for the day's game, the band -- no more than 50 feet away -- was playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." No one on the set seemed fazed by this. But the viewers who wrote expressed anger and outrage over what they perceived to be blatant disrespect for the national anthem and a profoundly unpatriotic act. Evidently, there was no embarrassment or contrition on ESPN's part, as that night's "SportsCenter" replayed a clip from the interview with the anthem as its musical accompaniment.

There was a time when there was universal respect, even a reverence, for "The Star-Spangled Banner." It has long been standard operating procedure for sports telecasts to either present the anthem in its entirety, or take great care to show a commercial or some other prerecorded material instead. In another era it was ingrained into production teams that, when trapped by a surprise playing of the anthem, all would respectfully rise to their feet and fall silent, even during rehearsal.

Proper conduct, according to U.S. Code (Title 36/Chapter 10, Patriotic Customs), is as follows: "During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in [military] uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart."

Disregard for "The Star-Spangled Banner" is becoming more common. It has happened previously on ESPN and on other networks. Viewers write about their perception of ESPN and announcer "arrogance." Perhaps GameDay's reaction to the anthem exemplifies some of the behavior that engenders that feeling. The implicit message the audience hears is a not-so-subtle "the importance of what we're saying right now far outweighs your quaint patriotic custom."

In speaking with ESPN representatives, we learned that the anthem was played 2 minutes earlier than scheduled, catching the production team and announcers off guard. Their reaction was inaction. The "SportsCenter" clip can only be explained as a lack of attention to detail. Said Mark Gross, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor of studio production: "None of this should have happened. There are no excuses. It's embarrassing, and we apologize. Now we have to make sure it never happens again."



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