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NFL FANS AND THE RACIAL DIVIDE

New poll reveals deep split over national anthem protests and Rooney Rule

By Jason Reid

ATLANTA — On the eve of the Super Bowl, the NFL has a real problem on its hands: There is a deep racial divide over how the league is viewed by its diverse fan base.

To complete our season-long series on the State of the Black NFL Fan, The Undefeated commissioned a SurveyMonkey poll revolving around the national anthem protests and the Rooney Rule.

In question after question, African-American respondents strongly signaled their support for NFL players who have protested during the national anthem to shine a light on systemic oppression. Black fans also expressed that, in a league in which almost 70 percent of the players are African-American, there should be a tool in place to increase diversity within the management ranks of teams. And when it comes to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who forbade the team’s players from demonstrating during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” black fans believe he got it all wrong.

The poll’s results (below) aren’t surprising, said Marc Lamont Hill, professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University. Hill said there’s often a deep divide on major issues involving race. The NFL isn’t immune from that fact.

“Throughout history, whenever we’ve had these major controversies around race, black and white Americans have viewed them very differently, according to polls,” Hill said. “If I respond to a poll question about NFL protests by basically saying, ‘Oh, those players are overreacting and the anthem is not the place to do that,’ if I take that approach, then I as the white NFL fan won’t have to think about what my role is in creating or reinforcing the reality that there is a deeper problem.

“But if I respond by acknowledging that there’s a structural problem, and just by virtue of being black or brown in this country there’s a different set of life chances, then suddenly that white fan is accountable as well. Suddenly, their power and position is on the table as well. By acknowledging that, they would have to be self-critical about their role in supporting the NFL and everything that goes with that. You’re talking about a level of self-examination that a lot of people don’t want to do, especially in a poll.”

Asked whether they strongly support or oppose NFL players who kneel during the anthem to protest police brutality and economic inequality, 59 percent of blacks strongly support players, compared with only 24 percent of whites. The opposite is true among those strongly opposed: 47 percent of whites but only 7 percent of blacks.

Do you support or oppose NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and economic inequality?

BLACK

WHITE

In responses to whether NFL players who kneel during the anthem are patriotic or unpatriotic, only 11 percent of blacks said the players are unpatriotic; among whites, the number is 44 percent.

Do you think that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem are patriotic or unpatriotic?

BLACK

WHITE

Opponents of the demonstrations, which dwindled this season, have erroneously admonished players for protesting against the anthem. The fact is, players have not protested against the anthem.

Their movement, they say, was never intended to be anti-police or anti-military. They’re primarily concerned about issues of policing in their communities, institutionalized racism, access to quality education for disadvantaged children and comprehensive criminal justice reform. By sitting, taking a knee or raising a fist during the anthem, players aimed to raise awareness of these issues, spark a constructive national dialogue and, they hoped, help in finding lasting solutions. To some degree, they’ve succeeded.

The Players Coalition, the main group that negotiated with the NFL on behalf of protesting players, secured an unprecedented commitmentof at least $89 million over seven years to bankroll projects dealing with law enforcement/community relations, education and criminal justice reform. Moreover, the NFL has backed legislation supporting reform.

But activist DeRay Mckesson said many of the whites who participated in the poll likely believe a false narrative about the new civil rights movement in sports that has been led by NFL players.

“Black people, partly as a matter of survival, have always had to be in tune with the way power flows and doesn’t flow — and no part of society is immune to that,” Mckesson said. “So just think about what’s going on in the NFL.

“There are [black] people who are having conversations all the time about, well, what does it mean that all the owners are white? And what does it mean that there are very few black coaches? How does that occur? [A lot of] white people aren’t asking those same questions. For them, it’s just easier to believe we’re asking questions and doing that [complaining] for no reason.”

Blacks have an overwhelmingly unfavorable view of Jones’ stance on the protests.

The Cowboys have played a key role in framing the discussion about the appropriateness of the players’ form of demonstration. Both behind closed doors and in public, Jones has made his feelings clear, squarely putting the Cowboys in opposition to the displays. Jones’ position is strongly opposed by 50 percent of blacks. With 52 percent of whites strongly in support of Jones, they signaled he got it right.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones forbid Cowboys players from demonstrating during the national anthem. Do you support or oppose his action?

BLACK

WHITE

Whites are less enthusiastic about the Rooney Rule.

In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule — named after former Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, the onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — mandates that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs. The rule has rightly come under increased scrutiny this season because only one coach of color is expected to fill one of the eight head-coaching vacancies during this hiring cycle. New England Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, the team’s de facto defensive coordinator, reportedly will be introduced as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach shortly after the Patriots play the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Among blacks, 45 percent strongly support the policy of having a rule intended to promote diversity. Only 26 percent of whites do.

The “Rooney Rule” is NFL policy requiring teams to interview minority candidates for coaching and high level jobs to increase the diversity of teams’ management. Do you approve or disapprove of this policy?

BLACK

WHITE

The poll shows that the racial divide among NFL fans won’t be bridged anytime soon, Hill said.

“White Americans have the extraordinary privilege of looking at each incident outside the context of racial inequality, racial injustice or the legacy of racism in America,” he said. “So they can just see … the controversy about kneeling as a political debate about how you feel about the anthem, as opposed to understanding it’s much more complex in a historically rooted way. White Americans tend not to see racial injustice as clearly as black Americans do. It has to be foaming-at-the-mouth, overt racism for white Americans to even acknowledge it.

“If someone uses the N-word, well, they get that. But if a bunch of coaches happen to be white instead of black, they just say, ‘Oh, they just hired the best man for the job.’ To get it, they would literally need an owner on tape to say, ‘I’m not hiring a black person.’ And then they would say it’s just that one owner. People with power and privilege often don’t see the structural dimensions of that power and privilege. They tend to see everything as isolated incidents because it’s more convenient for them. Its more comfortable for them. If it’s isolated, you don’t have to be accountable for it.”

So what now? What are black fans to expect moving forward from a league that still has no place for former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is led by owners who have been hostile to peaceful protests that highlight inequality and has yet to articulate a sensible anthem policy? The answers to those questions will likely help determine whether a historically loyal NFL fan base largely becomes a former one.


THE SURVEY 

HERE’S A LOOK AT MORE SURVEY RESULTS:

When you attend sporting events where the national anthem is played, how important is it to you personally to stand up during the anthem?

BLACK

WHITE

Are you a fan of professional football, the NFL (the National Football League)?

BLACK

WHITE

Compared to past football seasons are you now watching more, fewer, or the same number of NFL games?

BLACK

WHITE

Have the players’ protests caused you to reexamine your own opinions on police brutality and economic inequality?

BLACK

WHITE

How much do you think the NFL cares about fans like you?

BLACK

WHITE

Do you think the NFL has done too much, just enough, or not enough to show respect for its black players?

BLACK

WHITE

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

BLACK

WHITE

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of Colin Kaepernick?

BLACK

WHITE

What’s closer to your own view even if neither is exactly right — is Colin Kaepernick not on an NFL roster today because of his …

BLACK

WHITE

Do you plan to watch the Super Bowl this year?

BLACK

WHITE


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