Poll on opinion shift of Colin Kaepernick could explain NFL's about-face on players protesting during anthem

The NFL didn’t grow into a behemoth by ignoring societal and business trends. This is why based on the latest polling, it isn’t surprising the league appears to be embracing pregame political protests after years of trying to scrub Colin Kaepernick from its memory.

Fifty-two percent of people said it was “OK” for “NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African-Americans” according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted June 9-10. A total of 1,564 people were surveyed.

Thirty-six percent said it wasn’t OK and 12 percent weren’t sure.

While representing just a small majority, those numbers (52-36) are up dramatically from 2016, when just 28 percent of Americans thought kneeling was “appropriate.” In 2018, 35 percent said it was “OK.”

Colin Kaepernick hasn't played in the NFL since the 2016 season, when he began kneeling as a form of protest against police brutality and social inequalities in America. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Colin Kaepernick hasn't played in the NFL since the 2016 season, when he began kneeling as a form of protest against police brutality and social inequalities in America. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The movement on the issue is significant following the death of African-American George Floyd while under custody of Minneapolis police. Four officers have been charged with crimes in the incident, which set off weeks of protests and discussions nationally.

Is this the kind of shifting public sentiment that the NFL, which commonly does its own polling and focus groups, was looking at when commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to black players for not supporting them in past protests and directly declared that “black lives matter”?

Perhaps. Maybe more important was the breakdown by age.

The gap for ages 18-29 was 67-22 in favor. For 30-44,, it was 58-28. Combined (each age group is not equally represented) some 61.6 percent of those under 44 are supportive.

It is less so with older Americans. Among the 45-64 demographic, support falls to 48-40 and then drops to just 36-54 for those over age 65.

In essence, the future is clear. The younger generations, essentially the NFL’s future if not current customers, are lined up on one side.

The league is trying to appeal to as many people as possible and would greatly prefer if the Kaepernick-inspired style of protesting went away forever. This isn’t happening. This fall should see the return of sideline protests.

Left with that reality, the NFL is going to go where it thinks the money is. Not just current money, but future money.

There is little doubt that the NFL bottom line will be affected if the protests returned. It was in 2016 and 2017, when they first appeared. Television ratings dipped, boos reigned down on the field and some fans either swore the league off or at least consumed less of it.

Business returned as the protests lost favor. Along the way, President Donald Trump used the NFL and its players as an easy wedge issue.

Yet whatever is lost in the short term may not matter in the long. Or the damage might be far greater now if it alienates young fans to placate older ones.

Economics play a role in this opinion as well. The more money you make, the more likely you are to support the protests. For those earning over $100,000, support runs 63-29, a sizable majority. People with that kind of income are, obviously, coveted by any business.

Those making $50,000-$100,000 support the protests 51-39. Incomes under $50,000 are 49-36, still a plurality, but in lower numbers. Also of note, the support for the players is highest in cities (62 percent) and lowest in rural areas (37). While NFL teams draw from far and wide, they tend to play in major markets.

This was a poll commissioned by Yahoo and YouGov, not an internal one run by the NFL. However, if the league did similar polling (and it would be a huge surprise if it didn’t) and found similar results, then its shift in support for the protests would make sense.

This is the NFL. It’s a business. And while its customers are by no means universal on this, and while the bottom line will be adversely affected by angering those who oppose pregame protests, the long-term path is fairly clear.

Youth and money. It tends to change things quickly.

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