When players get political, it turns out that fans can get political right back. After months of speculation and piles of anecdotal evidence, market-research company J. D. Power has weighed in with real data. After surveying 9,200 fans, researchers found that “national anthem protests were the top reason that NFL fans watched fewer games last season.” The protests were never popular. A September 2016 Reuters poll indicated that a super-majority of 72 percent of Americans believed the protests, led by Colin Kaepernick, were “unpatriotic,” but evidence that his protest had an impact on ratings was spotty, at best. Now that’s changed.
To be sure, there were a number of other factors that affected viewership, from the pace of the game to off-field domestic-violence incidents, but 26 percent of those who tuned out the NFL did so because of the anthem protests. In spite of the fact that conservative boycott efforts rarely bear fruit (we’re better at buycotts, just ask Chick-fil-A), I can’t say that I’m surprised. As the Left is learning, the politicization of everything won’t always work to its benefit. Two sides can play that game.
It’s important to note, however, that it wasn’t just the fact of Kaepernick’s protest that ignited such a backlash. After all, athlete-led protests are hardly unprecedented. But his was particularly classless, his supporters were spectacularly condescending and arrogant, and he consequently exposed a political rot at the heart of an industry.
Let’s not forget that Kaepernick didn’t just confine himself to quietly kneeling. For a time, he relished breaking norms and inflaming fans. He wore socks depicting pigs in police hats. He showed up at a press conference in a Fidel Castro T-shirt. And through it all, sportswriters and commentators cheered him on. The elite sportswriting consensus was so much in favor of Kaepernick that it became somehow “controversial” to reflect the mainstream American view that kneeling was inappropriate and unpatriotic.
In short, sportswriters who could brilliantly break down the weaknesses of the Cover 2 defense proved that they were no better than dorm-room ideologues when speaking about politics. They knew they were right. Their peers mainly agreed with them. And anyone who disagreed was ignorant and likely racist. In an influential and widely shared piece, The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis outlined the level of intolerance:
Forget the viability of being a Trump-friendly sportswriter today. Could someone even be a Paul Ryan–friendly sportswriter — knocking out their power rankings while tweeting that Obamacare is a failure and the Iran deal was a giveaway of American sovereignty?
In sportswriting, there was once a social and professional price to pay for being a noisy liberal. Now, there’s at least a social price to pay for being a conservative.
The Kaepernick protests thus metastasized from one man’s classless protest to saturation-level fawning and hectoring. And when Paul Ryan is too radical a figure for members of a profession to support, there is little doubt that the profession has lost its way. With few exceptions, groupthink breeds arrogance and ignorance, not thoughtfulness or insight.
What now? Will players and leagues dial back their activism? Sports leagues have been moving left, even engaging in outright political activism to bully states into dropping expanded protections for religious liberty. ESPN has also steered sharply to port, transforming itself into the MSNBC of sports. Left-wing activists relentlessly argue that athletes should “use their platform” for “social change.” In some quarters, it’s as if sports is merely a means to an end. A point guard develops a jump shot so that he can declare, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” A linebacker is somehow wasting his gifts if he’s not blasting Trump on Twitter.
There are some signs that a message has been received. Colin Kaepernick is still looking for a job, and it’s silly to think that public disapproval doesn’t play a role. Elite football skills can cover a multitude of sins, but owners can easily swap one mediocre quarterback for another to avoid a public backlash. I would be surprised if the NFL sees another wave of anthem protests this year.
But that doesn’t mean all is well. That won’t mean sports is getting less political. New issues and causes will arise, and I fully expect to see athletes, coaches, journalists, and even the leagues themselves jump back into activism with both feet. And to the extent that the backlash is seen as explicitly conservative, that will only further inflame the loudest voices on the athletic left.
In reality, only the market can save us now. And that market message has to be clear — keep politics out of sports. That of course doesn’t mean that athletes aren’t citizens like the rest of us, that they should just “shut up and play.” But it does mean that the wholesale conscription of entire leagues and entire professions into the leftist-industrial complex has to end. Athletes conservative and liberal should be equally free to share their views, sportswriters should be as diverse as their audience, and leagues should stay out of the political fray. And, above all, when game day arrives, let’s leave the politics at home.
On Sundays, the Trump Train can rest at the station. The #Resistance can take a break. The truly important question this fall is whether Tom Brady is man or cyborg. Can he defy Father Time one more year? Does our yellow sun provide him with inhuman powers? America needs those answers far more than it needs to know the NFL’s position on the “compelling governmental interest” test in religious-freedom cases or a backup quarterback’s stance on police escalation of force. The field is for sports. Statements are for Twitter. When it comes to politics, athletes and sportswriters should be woke on their own time, not ours.