The Super Bowl has launched dozens of customs, ranging from the event’s eye-popping halftime show to the consumption of thousands of pounds of pizza, buffalo wings, and seven-layer dip. In 2018, however, one new tradition is in danger of being broken.
The White House has at present, according to a person familiar with the matter, indicated to NBC News that President Donald Trump will not take part in a recent Super Bowl ritual: a pre-game interview between the commander-in-chief and the news unit of the network hosting the game. Last year, Trump held forth with former Fox News Channel anchor Bill O’Reilly, and in 2016, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama conferred with Gayle King of CBS News. NBC News’ invitation to the President to take part in such a discussion remains open, this person said.
NBC News declined to make executives available for comment. A White House spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a query seeking comment. NBC is slated to broadcast Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 from the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.
By not taking part in a pre-game interview, Trump can avoid what would likely have been a difficult exchange. The President has been an extremely vocal critic of NFL players who have for months “taken a knee” during the playing of the National Anthem to protest social injustice in the United States. On several occasions in recent months, Trump has said NFL players who did not stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” were “sons of bitches.”
Any journalist interviewing Trump in advance of the Super Bowl would have to address the subject, said Richard Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. “That’s an essential question that needs to be asked in that moment,” Hanley said. “It is of high importance, and he did insert himself into that controversy and did criticize NFL players. They have to ask that question.”
In recent months, the president has spoken with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but has given the bulk of his TV interviews to Fox News Channel. An interview with NBC News could present other challenges. Trump has criticized NBC News in his tweets at various times since taking office.
Trump has had memorable exchanges with some of the news organization’s top anchors — some of whom might be candidates to talk to him on Game Day. In May, Trump spoke to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, telling him he was preparing to fire FBI Director James Comey regardless of recommendations from the attorney general and deputy attorney general, and described Comey as a “showboat.” Trump has tangled with Megyn Kelly, the anchor of morning program “Megyn Kelly Today,” while she worked at Fox News Channel. Trump criticized her on Twitter after she asked in an early Republican debate about the way he treated women. Katy Tur, an NBC News correspondent who anchors a program on MSNBC, recently wrote a memoir about her time covering the Trump campaign, where the now-President often singled her out during rallies as “little Katy.”
Chuck Todd, anchor of “Meet the Press,” and Savannah Guthrie, the co-anchor of “Today” who conducted a pre-game Super Bowl interview with President Obama in 2015, would also be likely candidates to conduct such an exchange with the president.
If there is no pre-game interview this year, viewers will miss out on a high-wire act, an exchange that many TV journalists have described as one of the toughest of their careers. While Trump taped his interview last year with O’Reilly, Obama would appear live on air. “It was the toughest interview I’ve ever done, because of the uncertainty and the live element of it. You can’t be fumbling around. You have to be on your game,” O’Reilly told Variety in 2016 about his interviews with Obama. “It’s like a prize fight,” he added. “You’re sitting across from him and here we go. The bell rings.” Before he interviewed Trump last year, O’Reilly told Variety: “I would say it’s the most important interview of my life,” adding: “There is so much happening and so much controversy and so many things in play. I need to get to the heart of the matter, and I will.”
“It’s going to be the fastest seven minutes of my life,” King told Variety before interviewing the Obamas in the Super Bowl pre-game in 2016.
TV correspondents know the interview can generate headlines for several days, and play out on their networks’ nightly news and morning programs. At the same time, the crowd that tunes in for the Super Bowl may not want to sit through several minutes of discussion about politics and policy. Guthrie’s pre-game talk with Obama was “really tricky,” she told Variety in 2016. “You have to remember, this is an interview that takes place in the Super Bowl pre-show. The last thing everyone is thinking about or wanting to talk about is politics.” The assignment, she said, “is striking the right balance, having the right tone for the context of the day, but you want to do an interview that is helpful, asks some important questions.”
The pre-game exchange rose to prominence under Obama, who did live interviews with everyone from CBS’ Scott Pelley to NBC’s Matt Lauer. In the past, however, such a talk was more sporadic, and sometimes less formal. President George W. Bush, for example, took part in a Super Bowl coin toss in 2002 and bantered with Jim Nantz of CBS Sports before the network’s 2004 broadcast of the event. NBC was able to orchestrate an interview between Tom Brokaw and President Ronald Reagan around a 1986 Super Bowl telecast.
Even when there hasn’t been a pre-game segment with the President, most of the people who have occupied the Oval Office try to link themselves to football, said Hanley, the journalism professor, “because of what it represents” to Americans. “The pre-game interview now is a television spectacle. It is essential for a president,” he said. The idea that the White House is interested in the game helps create an image of the Super Bowl “as the one event that unites America.”