Baltimore Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee is pushed away by Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown during the first half of an NFL football game on Sept. 11, 2014, in Baltimore.
Patrick Semansky—AP
September 11, 2014 10:10 PM EDT

Let’s make one thing clear: CBS had a nearly impossible task tonight for its inaugural Thursday Night Football pre-game broadcast. To call the Ray Rice situation the elephant in the room would be a gross understatement. If the news cycle were to dictate tonight’s football coverage, they wouldn’t have even bothered with the game.

But that’s the trouble. Most people tuning in to Thursday night’s contest weren’t doing so because they wanted to hear more about Ray Rice, Roger Goodell and the unadulterated disaster that the entire situation has become. They could have turned on ESPN or CNN or any of the countless news outlets — both on television and on the Internet — covering the event with relentless fervor. Instead, most people turning on Thursday night’s broadcast were doing so because they wanted to watch a football game, because they love the sport in spite of its ever-more apparent evils and because they want a distraction from the horrors of the rest of the world. (CBS also wisely decided to drop its opener, the Jay Z–Rihanna collaboration “Run This Town,” as well as a comedy segment.)

CBS couldn’t just ignore the situation though. And for the first 30 minutes of their pregame broadcast, they didn’t. They opened the show with James Brown, who quickly kicked it over to CBS Evening News’ Scott Pelley. Pelley provided a brief summary of the Rice situation and the most recent developments (though repeatedly showing the elevator video of Rice striking his then-fiancée Janay Palmer may not have been in the best of taste). From there, the broadcast went to NFL Network reporter Judy Battista, standing outside the NFL’s New York City headquarters, who discussed the so-called “independent” investigation set to be launched to examine NFL’s investigation into the Rice-Palmer incident.

Next up was Brown’s pretaped interview with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, who did his best to toe the party line and proved unwilling to levy any sort of criticism at Goodell (a sample: “Why would I take an anonymous person’s word over a man I’ve known for 14 years?”). Oddly, CBS’s strongest moments came when the cameras were focused on the on-field studio crew of Brown, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and Deion Sanders. Moments after the Bisciotti interview ended, Cowher said bluntly, “If there’s evidence of a cover-up, with this video or anything else, I don’t see how Roger Goodell keeps his job.” Given what we’ve learned in the last 48 hours, he may as well have just said to start packing.

The capper to the Rice discussion — which also included a brief live interview with Norah O’Donnell, who had interviewed Goodell earlier in the week — was a moving monologue by Brown:

The words themselves may not have been particularly revelatory, but the fact that they were spoken on a national broadcast just 30 minutes prior to a crucial NFL game sends a message. At least a certain portion of the fans watching from home likely didn’t agree with everything Brown said, let alone believe those words should have been part of an NFL broadcast. That they were included may not fix the wrongs that have already been committed, but perhaps signals some sort of change in an outlook that is desperately in need of one.

But then it was time to return to football. It was inevitable that the broadcast would at some point, but the relief and gusto with which CBS did so was problematic. “Time to talk football, finally,” Brown said as they returned to air just prior to 8 p.m. The attitude for the second half-hour of the pregame show undid what good work was done in the first, as though everyone just wanted to shovel down their domestic violence vegetables before getting to their tasty meat-and-potatoes entree of football.

It’s tough to criticize CBS for opening the show with the Rice saga (it would have been odd if they hadn’t), but it also provided them with an opportunity to get it out of the way before even more viewers tuned in to watch the game. Rice’s name wasn’t mentioned in the second half of the pregame show, and the situation was only mentioned obliquely, almost always in the context of how big a distraction it would prove for the Ravens.

If you thought CBS would do anything other than address the ongoing saga with the requisite amount of sobriety before turning to the ever-more-pertinent business of football, you were kidding yourself. Sometimes all you can do is survive an impossible task before returning to business as usual — it’s what CBS did, and is undoubtedly a trick that Roger Goodell and the NFL hope they can pull off in the coming weeks and months. They may not have as easy a go of it.

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