A new study out of Northern Illinois University appears to confirm what some likely suspected—that the “Take a Knee” movement in the NFL was galvanized by its most prominent detractor, President Donald Trump.
The movement began during the 2016 preseason when, in a protest against racial injustice, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem. A few games later, after consulting with a fellow NFL player who is a military veteran, he changed his protest to taking a knee.
Scarcely noticed at first, those actions spread to other players and teams and began what the study authors call “one of the most visible protests for social justice in modern sports history”—with echoes of the “Black Power Salute” by American runners Tommy Smith and John Carlos after medaling in the 1968 Olympic Summer Games.
Published this month in the journal Contexts, the new study analyzed the number of NFL protests on a week-by-week basis over the last two seasons.
The demonstrations “were smaller than the media coverage suggested” but increased when efforts were made to discredit protesting players, said lead author Simón Weffer, an NIU sociologist who teaches courses on social movements, as well as sports and society.
Weffer said only a handful of teams had players who participated in protests during the 2016 season, with no more than 36 of nearly 1,500 NFL players protesting in any week. Protests during the first two weeks of the 2017 regular season also were minimal. Only nine players protested in that second week of the season, suggesting the demonstrations “were losing steam,” Weffer said.
Just prior to the third weekend of that season, however, Trump stepped into the fray during a political rally in Alabama, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”
Following the comment, more than 400 players across 26 of 32 teams protested that weekend —more players than in all the previous protests combined, according to the study. “The comments by Trump really reinvigorated the protests, and made them rocket up,” Weffer said.
The next week, the number of players protesting fell by nearly half, to 213 players. The following week only 37 protested.
Before games during Week 7, news leaked that Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, had told other owners in a meeting that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison,” a comment that infuriated many of the players whose protests were in part aimed at inequality in the criminal justice system. (McNair later told a newspaper that he used the phrase in reference to league executives, and not in reference to players.)
McNair’s comments led to a small upsurge in demonstrations during the seventh week of games, with 57 players on 13 teams protesting. The number of protests declined some and stabilized for the remainder of the season. (Five teams saw no protests over the two-year span.)
The researchers built their dataset primarily from ESPN.com’s reporting and running lists of players engaged in protest. They cross-checked information with other publications and consulted media photographs of players on the sideline as well. Incidents of protest were counted when players sat on the bench, knelt, raised a fist in the air, remained in the locker room or stayed in the tunnel during the national anthem.
When the protests first began in the fall of 2016, Weffer was teaching a sociology of sports course that included a discussion of the 1968 “Black Power Salute.” He and study co-authors Rodrigo Dominguez-Martinez and Raymond Jenkins, who have since earned their graduate degrees at NIU, came up with the idea to closely examine the NFL protests. Weffer said they intend to continue to track the protest numbers. (The 2018 preseason has already seen some player protests.)
He also noted that the movement has perhaps had a desirable effect both for the president and for the protesters. Weffer said Trump’s stance has appealed to his voter base, while the NFL and its Players Coalition established a partnership this past spring to commit $90 million for efforts and programs combating social inequality.
“I don’t think the players could have leveraged the millions of dollars that they’ve gotten from the NFL without having Trump there as the bad guy,” Weffer said.