White Americans prefer white NFL stars — a preference that has gotten stronger since some players began protesting during the national anthem. Among whites without a college education, black players’ popularity dropped — even if an individual player did not protest.
Remember the anthem protests?
In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, who is black, began protesting racial injustice and police violence — first by sitting, and then kneeling, while the national anthem was played before NFL games. Soon, a small number of fellow players joined in, most of them black. The protests were very popular with black Americans, with 74 percent approving in one 2016 poll — and very unpopular among whites, with 62 percent disapproving in the same poll.
President Trump jumped into this issue, arguing in the fall of 2017 that team owners should fire players who would not stand for the national anthem. Trump voters’ opinions of the NFL plummeted. Between 2012 and 2017, the proportion of Republicans and independents who said they were NFL fans fell 12 and 15 percent. The league’s popularity among Democrats didn’t change.
The controversy affected public perception of black and white players in different ways, according to consumer polling.
Marketing NFL stars
Every year, between the Super Bowl and the college players’ draft, Q Scores conducts a survey of NFL stars’ popularity. They measure players’ public appeal and sell that information to firms making decisions about licensing and endorsements.
The surveyed group is representative of U.S. adults ages 18 to 64 in sex, age, race and region of the country. Respondents are asked if a player is “someone you have definitely seen or heard of before.” If the answer is yes, they’re asked if their opinion of the player is “poor,” “fair,” “good,” “very good,” or “one of your favorites.”
A player’s approval rating is the number of people who ranked him good or better as a percent of the people who had heard of him.
These surveys cannot tell us how popular NFL players are in general. The poll does not bother to ask about people who are obscure or widely disliked. The marketers know their business: In 2018, the included players’ median approval rating was a sky-high 85 percent.
Black and white players’ popularity in 2015 vs. 2018
NFL stars are not interchangeable cogs. Even before the anthem protests, their popularity differed widely, based on recent performance, past and current teams, and public persona. Most play in high-profile positions. However, black players are steered toward defensive positions and less central offensive roles. Black players are especially unlikely to become quarterbacks, who are the league’s biggest stars.
All of these factors translate into player popularity. To take those differences into account, players’ relative popularity in 2018 needs to be benchmarked against the differences in their ratings before the anthem protests started. For example, in 2015, white quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s popularity was 13 percent ahead of Kaepernick’s score. In 2018, Rodgers was 36 percent ahead of Kaepernick, who is no longer playing. Rodgers has always been more popular, but the gap between the two grew significantly.
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Forty-three NFL players were included in the 2015 and 2018 Q Scores surveys. Of those, 21 are black, and the rest are white. Nine of the black players knelt, sat, raised a fist or stayed in the locker room for the national anthem before at least one game during the 2016 or 2017 seasons. None of the white players did so.
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Popularity before and after
In 2015, the black and white players had the same median approval rating among U.S. adults: 82 percent. In 2018, the black players’ median approval rating was still 82 percent while the white players’ median score had risen to 85 percent. On this measure, the gap in black and white stars’ popularity increased from 0 to 3 percent.
But that averages together everyone’s opinion of the players. The gap jumped even more among white adults, whose preference for white players increased from 0 percent in 2015 to 5 percent in 2018. If we were to rank the players by their popularity among white adults, in 2015, four of the 10 most popular players were black — while in 2018, one of the 10 players was black.
Protesters vs. non-protesting players
The bar graph below breaks the changes in popularity down by audience, distinguishing between black players who protested and players who did not.
The graph shows popularity among non-Hispanic whites without college education; non-Hispanic whites with some college education; and non-Hispanic blacks. Among whites, having attended college is a strong predictor of ideology and partisanship. Whites who’ve ever attended college are more likely to describe themselves as liberals and Democrats.
The length of the bars is the average percentage points of popularity that black players lost or gained, compared with white players between 2015 and 2018. The darker bars are for players who participated in the protests. The lighter bars are the change in relative popularity for black players who did not participate.
As you can see, black NFL players lost the most popularity among non-college educated whites. All black players lost ground, whether they protested. Protesters lost more than 6 percent of their approval rating compared with white players. Non-protesting black players lost 4 percent.
Whites with some college education did not change their relative ratings of black and white NFL players as much. There was a 1 percent popularity drop for the protesters, and a slight increase in popularity among non-protesters.
African Americans, unlike either group of whites, thought more highly of the protesting players, compared with the white players. Even though both blacks and college educated whites had relatively small reactions to the protests, they moved in opposite directions.
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Does it matter?
Lost popularity hurts black football players’ livelihoods. Black football players already face bias in media coverage, scouting and hiring. Marketers rely on surveys like Q Scores to decide whether to make lucrative endorsements and licensing deals. Losing popularity in these polls could bring a tangible financial penalty.
Soon, Super Bowl LIII will cap the 2018 season. New NFL rules kept player protesting to a minimum in the fall. Nonetheless, the NFL is likely to see more partisan controversy. Professional football is exceptionally popular in most political and demographic categories — which means that if the country is politically polarized, then NFL fans are, too.
Bethany Lacina (@bethany_lacina) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester, and co-author, with Rikhil Bhavnani of “Nativism and Economic Integration across the Developing World” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).