NIU Study Finds NFL Protest Bolstered By President's Attack

Sep 4, 2018

NIU Assoc. Prof. Simón Weffer-Elizondo
Credit Guy Stephens/WNIJ

The National Football League’s regular season is getting underway. One question for NFL observers this year will be how many players take a knee during the national anthem. A Northern Illinois University study found the action was given new life by President Trump’s call for the protesters to be fired.  

NIU sociology professor Simón Weffer-Elizondo led the study published in a recent issue of the journal Contexts. He studies social movements, sports, and society. Weffer-Elizondo said he and a team of graduate students were tracking the protest by a few players over racial injustice. Weffer-Elizondo said the movement started in the 2016 NFL season by quarterback Colin Kaepernick seemed to be tapering off at the beginning of the next one. That was before Trump blasted the protesters at a rally. 

“But then Trump decided to make his remarks and we see this huge spike,” he said, “going from 25-30 players protesting to over 700.”

Weffer-Elizondo thinks the protests would have continued anyway, if on a smaller scale.   

“I think the 'Tweeter-in-Chief' made it bigger,” he said, “but I think it was there and I think it had legs, in the fact that even last season, when Kaepernick wasn’t playing, there were still players protesting.”

Weffer-Elizondo said comments by the president and his followers and the ensuing reaction also gave the movement a very high profile.

He said the NFL responded by teaming up with the players to put up $90 million to help combat social inequality. And sports apparel giant Nike has just made Kaepernick the face of a new ad campaign.

But recent actions by some NFL owners to punish protesters have provoked another outcry. So, he says, the conversation is still very much alive.

And, Weffer-Elizondo said, the notoriety given it by the President has helped expand the movement beyond the NFL. There are reports of college and even younger athletes taking a knee during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities.