The 2016 calendar year has seen a revival of athlete activism unlike anything since the days of Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and others in the 20th century. But even with continued protests about police brutality, Americans don’t approve of protest in the field of athletics.
A new Quinnipiac University poll released this week details that 54 percent of Americans polled disagree with this form of activism, in contrast with a 4-1 approval rating from black adults. The poll also found that white adults disapproved of the athlete protests at a 63 percent clip.
This split regarding the belief of what athletes should or shouldn’t do also trickles into a conversation about proper policing in the United States. This same poll found that 70 percent of white Americans believed U.S. officers are doing their job, while 67 percent of black Americans disagreed.
The poll is a sample of how the country's opinion differs on how policing should operate, as well as whether athletes should interject personal social views into sports.
"There is a profound racial divide over athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem and deep differences over whether the police can be trusted," assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll Tim Malloy said in a release with the poll. "But no matter what race is surveyed, Americans believe police should not violate civilians' civil liberties to prevent crime.”
Quinnipiac surveyed 1,391 adults — 249 of which were black — nationwide using live interviewers who called landlines and cell phones.
Fifty-two percent of white Americans with college degrees disapproved of athlete protests, while 72 percent of those without degrees did the same. In contrast, 78 percent of black Americans with degrees and 72 percent of black Americans without degrees approved of the protests.
The recent protests on football fields and arenas in the sports world were spurred by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who is starting for the first time this season on Sunday — in August, when he refused to stand for, as he asserted, “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Since then, other athletes have joined him almost every week.
The results of the poll were wholly unsurprising, according to Jay Coakley, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, who’s research has examined the intersection of sociology and sports.
Coakely said that Americans haven’t had the same frequent encounters with political statements entering arenas, as that of international countries where soccer stadiums have historically been sites of overt sociopolitical behavior.
“Any actions that disrupt the enjoyment and the fantasy that exists around the NFL and its games are going to be rejected by fans,” Coakley said. “The fans think of football as being separate from the rest of reality. If someone infuses reality into that experience, it’s jolting to the fans and they don’t like it.”
Coakley’s point can also be used outside of athletics. A majority of Americans have often opposed forms of civil protest and disruption. More than 60 percent of citizens didn’t approve of the 1961 Freedom Rides and the 1960 March on Washington. Over 80 percent of white responders said that demonstrations like the “sit-ins” of that same period were hurtful to the advancement of black rights.
Eruptions of protest like those, however, have consistently furthered conversations about race on a national scale.
David Leonard, a professor of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, believes that it's not that people don't want politics or protest in sports. It’s that the majority of Americans don't want it in sports that challenge their conservative or mainstream belief system.
“Protest challenges the idea that we are post-racial,” he said. “They're saying not only is racism alive and well, it affects us directly and therefore we are gonna stand up and protest. These protests force white fans [and] white coaches to, one, account for their own whiteness, and two, stand at a moral crossroads and take a position. It forces them to say, literally: ‘my football game is more important than your life, my comfort is more important than injustice.’”
The NFL has served as an important link for the nation’s consistent — though, at times, trying — discussion on race. Charles K. Ross wrote about such in his 1999 book Outside The Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League where he discussed how, historically, the league was a “microcosmic fishbowl” of the trials of racial integration.
Coakley explained the disfavor quantified in the Quinnipiac poll shows how much sports are tied to a specific ideology that connects personal or political values of the fans consuming the sport. Leonard took that notion a step further. Results like those in the poll show a long-believed understanding that black Americans aren’t on the same page as white Americans regarding issues of race.
“It’s disconcerting,” Leonard said of the results. “Because these protests are challenging this wrong worldview and challenging people to determine where they stand in this moment in history."