Where does the NFL go from here?
The millions of Americans who tune in each week to watch professional football continue to have a front row seat to a match up happening on and off the field: the ongoing fight between NFL players and the President of the United States. After President Donald Trump used profanities to describe player protests and berated the NFL on Twitter, teams and players in every corner of the country have used their limelight to rebut his remarks.
This week, players from more than ten teams continued their activism for racial justice through locked arms, kneeled stances, or raised fists during the national anthem. The White House fired back, sending Vice President Mike Pence to a game, with (many people believe) a premediated plan to walk out during the protest. The players’ activism is bound to continue, and Americans are still divided on how they feel about it, but the NFL needs to figure out how it’s going to handle this complex and polarizing issue.
Other American professional sports leagues have been forced to navigate increasingly polarizing political issues as well, frequently choosing to distance themselves from Trump. From the PGA moving its Grand Slam from Trump’s golf course because of his comments on immigration to the NBA relocating its All-Star game from North Carolina over the state’s treatment of transgender people, it is clear the sports industry has decided to speak up. Global Strategy Group has been studying the intersection of business and politics for the past four years – and that includes the business of sports. We have found 81 percent of Americans believe that businesses should take action to address important issues, and we have seen the sporting industry take note of these attitudes.
It’s the NFL’s turn to navigate a divisive issue in a world where 8 in 10 Americans expect businesses to be taking a stand on important issues. What does the NFL need to know?
Even though NFL teams and players emphasize unity, Americans remain divided on the players’ activism.
After Trump’s initial remarks in September, every single NFL team released a statement – a signal of solidarity from the league. While the NFL has commented on social issues before, it is unprecedented for every single NFL team to individually release statements on such a high-profile issue. GSG analyzed the statements and found that teams were leaning into messages of unity around their players, communities, and country, refraining from any direct mentions of Trump in an attempt to depoliticize the issue.
However, the statements around unity stand in contrast to the American public’s attitudes. According to a poll GSG recently conducted for ESPN, the nation is split on how they feel about the protests. 51 percent of respondents who identified as NFL fans said they somewhat or strongly disapproved of the protests while 30 percent said they somewhat or strongly approved. These findings were also split racially, with higher disapproval among whites (62 percent) than African Americans (16 percent). While NFL teams are touting unity, our survey shows that the issue is still highly polarizing, especially among different races, and acknowledging the division will be central to any solution.
President Trump and Vice President Pence continue driving these divisions among Americans even though the overall focus on the issue is on the decline.
GSG’s recent poll also found that 58 percent of Americans say they disagree with Trump’s criticism of the NFL, including a slight majority of whites. However, Americans’ displeasure with Trump’s NFL comments hasn’t stopped him from doubling down on the issue. Trump has dedicated more of his Twitter feed to the NFL than he has to other high-profile issues. As of today, Trump has tweeted a total of 25 times about the NFL issue, compared to 17 times on the Charlottesville protests, 3 times on the transgender military ban, and 3 times on the Paris Climate Agreement.
Conversation among Democratic and GOP influencers on Twitter spiked when Trump first slammed the NFL. More than 200 Democratic influencers posted on average twice each day whereas more than 200 GOP influencers posted about 1.5 times each day. Democratic influencers continued to weigh in more often too after Vice President Pence decided to leave a NFL game because some players kneeled during the national anthem. Although this incident generated less online chatter from the more than 400 total influencers we looked at, Democratic influencers tweeted twice as much as GOP influencers. The only time GOP influencers were tweeting about the issue more than Democratic influencers was during the second week of protests – the only week neither Trump nor Pence dedicated a noticeable amount of attention to the issue.
Trump and Pence understand this is a polarizing issue and are using it to their advantage. Additionally, with high levels of engagement around the issue, Democratic and GOP influencers online are only reinforcing this polarization. Both the White House and political influencers are driving divisions among Americans as both teams and players are trying to create unity.
The NFL needs to decide how it will engage around player activism while maintaining its appeal to its massive audience and fan base.
While Americans remain split on the player protests, there is no indication the protests will end any time soon. The NFL has yet to determine any framework or plans that address this ongoing activism and guidelines for how players are expected to engage during the national anthem. However, there are reports that influential players are in discussions with NFL leadership around how the league can support player activism.
It is no longer a question of whether the NFL should be taking a stand in the political arena, it is question of when and how they’re going to do it – and the ongoing friction between NFL players and the White House is a siren that it needs to be soon. The NFL needs to make a decision: will it create a solution at the league-level or leave it to individual teams? Will they more publicly acknowledge that their players have unique perspectives that will be accommodated in the workplace? Or will letting teams and players lead by example simply be enough?
Whatever plan of action they work towards, the NFL will need a set of principles and values on how they will approach this issue. With one of the largest spotlights and public followings, the NFL sits upon an opportunity to define how it will engage around its player activism. Americans now expect businesses – including sports businesses like the NFL – to be taking a stand on issues, but the they will need to navigate this one carefully since the issue remains highly polarized.