There’s no denying that many Americans feel strongly about national anthem protests, particularly during the National Football League’s 2017 season. While the protests have made for good water-cooler fodder, they have also elicited strong and unprecedented reactions, including President Trump calling on NFL owners to fire protesting players.
Anthem protests date back well beyond Colin Kaepernick’s August 2016 kneeling display. Many will recall the infamous photograph of 200-meter medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the medalists’ podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City with their black-gloved raised fists and bowed heads. What Kaepernick, Smith, Carlos and other professional athletes who protest during the anthem have in common is their call to raise attention to issues related to racial injustice in American society and especially the criminal justice system.
Philadelphia Eagle Malcolm Jenkins and Seattle Seahawk Doug Baldwin (the son of a police officer) go further in their aim to draw attention to the issues they advance. Independent of on-the-field actions, both players have been active in meetings with community groups, talked with members of Congress and engaged police officials and officers in constructive dialogue.
The freedom of American citizens to engage in free speech and peacefully protest just about anything is one of the main pillars of our democratic society. But are some protests off-limits? Are some so sacred they are beyond protest? And do all Americans across the demographic spectrum speak with one voice on the matter?
These questions motivated us to survey young adults to examine how race influenced their own perceptions regarding different styles of anthem protesting and how race related to perceptions of punishment of anthem-protesting athletes. Depending on your own stance on this issue, what we found in our new study published online in the academic journal Deviant Behavior was noteworthy.
Of 299 college students polled, black respondents were more likely than non-black respondents to agree with several forms of anthem-protesting, including kneeling, sitting and fist-raising, while at the same time being less likely to support punishment of anthem-protesting players by either the NFL or NFL team owners. Specifically, 90 percent of black respondents agreed or strongly agreed with protest kneeling, but only 38 percent of non-black respondents did.
Similar differences across race were observed for the other two types of anthem protests: fist-raising and sitting. Even more striking, we observed that every single black respondent either disagreed or strongly disagreed with both the NFL or team owners punishing anthem protestors. Only about a quarter of non-black respondents felt the same way.
Aside from racial splits on attitudes about anthem protests and potential punishment for such protests, we also found that politically conservative respondents — those who reported being more “patriotic” and those who agreed with President Trump’s tweet denouncing anthem protesters — were more likely to disagree with anthem protests while being more supportive of punishment for protests from either the NFL or team owners.