In 2017, the gridiron became the site of a conflict greater than athletic competition. It began the year before when a single man – 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick – refused to stand for the national anthem, citing systemic racism in America as the reason behind his protest. Fueled by fervent media coverage and the Twitter condemnation of a sitting president, a movement quickly blossomed on NFL sidelines across the country. Some teams responded with demonstrations of unity, kneeling or interlocking arms during the anthem. On other squads, protesters knelt in sharp contrast to their teammates, often inciting the ire of their own fans in the stands. As the league struggled to contend with the controversy, President Trump reproached players and owners alike, claiming ratings had suffered due to the demonstrations.
As protests emerged as the major narrative of the 2017-18 season, the reality of these actions across the NFL was more nuanced than many noticed. In this project, we’ve analyzed various protests by individual players and whole teams, studying the facts behind the fervor on both sides of the anthem debate. We considered the timing of demonstrations in relation to President Trump’s criticism and determined trends in player behavior throughout the regular season. Read on to learn the hard numbers of a movement that altered the nature of American sports and galvanized a national debate in the process.
Activism Standings, by Division
No region went untouched by the protest movement among NFL players in 2017. Although every division witnessed some participation in this national trend, some parts of the league were more active in this respect than others, both in terms of actions by players and collective decisions by teams. The NFC West saw a striking number of players decline anthem participation, especially on the Seahawks and 49ers squads. Overall, however, the AFC contained more anthem objectors, especially by Tennessee, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. Each of these teams had 50 or more players refusing to take part in the anthem this season.
Other squads opted for unity in the face of controversy, electing to protest together as a team. Indianapolis players engaged in league-leading four team protests, although it was individual kneeling that rankled the vice president enough to depart a Colts game in October 2017. Other teammates tended to participate in the anthem and broadcast their beliefs simultaneously, by raising their fists or locking arms side by side. More than 100 players on the Lions, Jets, and Texans took such actions this year.
Although merely a handful of players sat, knelt, or otherwise avoided participating in the anthem in the first couple games of the season, that all changed in Week 3. In a tirade on Sept. 22 and an accompanying tweet the following day, President Trump urged owners to fire protesters on their teams. Over Sunday and Monday, 368 players acted in defiance of the president, refusing in various ways to take part in the anthem. In each of the next two weeks, at least 45 players continued their protests.
While the commander in chief’s Twitter criticism continued unabated (including 37 tweets in the month following his initial post), the number of players opting not to participate significantly declined by Week 6. In Weeks 10 and 11, protester levels returned to roughly what they’d been before Trump waded into the controversy. But after the president criticized a proposed plan to keep teams off the field during the anthem, protests saw resurgence in Week 12, and roughly 20 players took part each week through the remainder of the regular season.
Squads Take a Stand
If Colin Kaepernick sparked the NFL’s protest predicament, his former teammates seem intent on continuing his efforts in his absence. More than 100 San Francisco players opted not to take part in the national anthem this season, earning the support of the team’s management in the process. The only squad to surpass the 49ers in protest participation, the Seahawks, also did so with the backing of leadership. With 156 of his players opting out of the anthem this season, Seattle coach Pete Carroll has encouraged the attention to racial injustice these protests have prompted.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some teams had just one or two players refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Either by coincidence or as a result of local political climates, many such teams hail from Southern states. These included Carolina, Houston, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta, each with two or fewer protesting players. In an ironic turn, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has recently expressed serious interest in buying the Panthers and enlisted the support of Kaepernick and NBA star Steph Curry in that effort. Both athletes have attracted Trump’s ire for their political stances, and might change Carolina’s protest culture dramatically.
Individual or Indivisible?
In the days following Trump’s attack on kneeling players, many teams were galvanized into collective action. While the Steelers, Seahawks, and Titans sat or knelt together in Week 3, the more popular option among teams was to interlock arms or raise fists in unison. The next week, pre-anthem protests gained steam, with four teams conducting them. By Week 5, just one team was acting as a whole: Indianapolis protested as a team before the anthem through Week 7.
Actions on the part of players were more likely to include refusals to stand for the anthem. More than 200 players did so in Week 3, and 35 locked arms or raised fists as well. Although some see this practice as a welcome compromise between patriotism and activism, it hasn’t spared players from the ire of some fans. In fact, several Ravens players were booed in October when they knelt before the anthem started – even though they did so in prayer.
As noted above, President Trump’s harsh stance on anthem protests seemed to inflame the movement, rather than extinguish it. In Week 3, when the president tweeted no fewer than 18 times in reference to the NFL, more than 1,200 players responded by demonstrating in various ways. The following week, when Trump tweeted on 10 occasions, 514 players took part in a protest, with a growing number opting to do so before the anthem. When Trump’s attention to the issue declined in Week 5, protests saw a sharp drop as well.
The number of demonstrating players hit lows in Weeks 8 through 10, perhaps because the president ceased tweeting about them entirely during this time. But that uneasy stalemate ended with a tweet in Week 11, and protest participation was up again by Week 12. That week, Trump denounced the league’s willingness to consider keeping teams in the locker room during the national anthem. He also targeted commissioner Roger Goodell specifically, who had previously attributed increased protest activity to players’ “profound disappointment” about the president’s attacks.
While President Trump has always kept a watchful eye on television ratings, they’ve played an especially significant role in his criticism of the NFL. In fact, he’s suggested player protests are only a secondary reason the league’s viewership is dwindling: The main cause is that people like watching him instead. But according to rating data, the 2017-18 season hasn’t turned off viewers in drove with its controversy. Although ratings for “Sunday Night Football” were down from the year before, the decline was only slight. The same was true for “Monday Night Football.”
Many experts attribute declining NFL ratings to a much broader trend. As streaming platforms transform the way Americans consume content, networks that carry games are struggling to maintain their past dominance. Cable channel ESPN, which presents “Monday Night Football,” has also seen subscriber numbers sag slightly in the age of streaming. President Trump has cast a critical eye on the network’s numbers, suggesting in October that ESPN had “tanked.”
Fans Take a Stand
In light of the division that has defined this season, fans across the political spectrum may overlook an important source of agreement: the greatness of the game. No matter your views about how players behave before the first whistle, there’s no disputing the excellence on display each week across the NFL. So whether you’re with friends or family the next time you tune in for kickoff, feel free to argue your view of these athletes’ actions. But once the bitter debate is done, there’s a tried-and-true method for healing available: rooting for your team together.
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To compile the data used in this study, we reviewed ESPN’s week-by-week recaps of NFL protests, and categorized protest types and frequencies based on these reports. Where unspecific numbers of players participating were used in the reports (i.e., “the majority of players knelt”), we estimated counts. All estimates are based on a 53-man roster.
In categorizing protests, we included all mentioned players and actions and categorized them based on 1.) Whether players knelt or did not participate in the national anthem; 2.) Whether players supported other protesting players (e.g., putting a hand on the shoulder of a kneeling teammate); 3.) Whether players acted in some non-kneeling or sitting protest (e.g., raised fists, interlocking arms, etc.); and 4.) Whether it was an individual or team protest. “Team Protests” were defined as a unified action by the entire team. Although there were many instances of the majority of players on a team doing the same protest, they were considered individual protests under this definition (see New Orleans Saints protests weeks 8 through 17).
We pulled Twitter information from trumptwitterarchive.com, and included any tweets directed toward or referencing the NFL, kneeling, or standing during the national anthem. TV ratings were compiled using reports from sportsmediawatch.com.
Because all protest figures are based on news reports, they are estimates. Further, some figures were compiled by estimating when language in reports was unclear or inexact. It is possible there may have been more or fewer protests than reported, although we do not believe it would change the integrity of the data for these purposes. Because the reports were summaries, individual accountability for players was not possible.
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