Nearly two dozen NFL players continued to kneel, sit or raise a fist to the sky to bring attention to social injustice and police brutality during the national anthem Sunday, a demonstration that once again drew the attention of President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday morning, he tweeted that “at least 24 players kneeling this weekend at NFL stadiums that are now having a very hard time filling up. The American public is fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our country, our flag and our national anthem. Weak and out of control!”
According to numbers compiled by the Associated Press from its reporters at stadiums around the country on Sunday, 23 players continued to demonstrate, a number that has held fairly steady over the last few weeks as players and NFL owners have met to convert their demonstrations into action. In Oakland, for instance, Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch continued to sit while nine Seattle Seahawks players, including defensive end Michael Bennett, either sat or took a knee. Three of their opponents on the San Francisco 49ers’ sideline – linebacker Eli Harold, safety Eric Reid and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin – also took a knee. Rams linebacker Robert Quinn raised a fist during the anthem, as did Eagles Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. As usual, they were joined by teammate Chris Long, who placed a hand of support on Jenkins’s back as he stood with his other hand over his heart. Two players, Kansas City’s Marcus Peters and Tennessee’s Rishard Matthews, remained in their locker rooms during the anthem.
As for the president’s claim about attendance, attendance through Week 12 was listed at nearly 12 million fans for the league’s 32 teams by Pro Football Reference, with Week 12 drawing just over 1 million.
Business Insider reported last week that average attendance at NFL games was actually up slightly, from 68,914 per game in 2016 to 69,264 per game, through the first 10 weeks of the season. (Sunday marked Week 12.) It’s important to note, though, that NFL ticket sales are driven by season-ticket purchases and individual games purchased before the season starts and the league wants teams to report “tickets distributed” rather than the number of fans that actually attend. In the San Francisco 49ers’ Santa Clara stadium, attendance can be listed as topping 70,000 on Sunday while the stadium (especially the sunny side on hot days) looks empty.
Trump’s Tuesday tweet continues a theme he has sounded since September, when, in a speech in Alabama, he called for NFL owners to suspend or fire any “son of a b—-” who doesn’t stand for the anthem, a demonstration begun by Colin Kaepernick in the summer of 2016. On Friday, he tweeted that Commissioner Roger Goodell “has lost control of the hemorrhaging league. Players are the boss!”
The NFL’s more than 1,600 players are not required by rules to stand for the anthem and owners, who met last month with players to discuss an issue on which they are divided, have declined to compel them to do so.
Last month, the New York Times’ Upshot blog found that the NFL has become one of the most divisive brands in the United States as it seeks common ground between a player population that is predominantly black and a fan base that is mostly white. In addition to the league’s other negative headlines, TV ratings have dropped and were not helped by lackluster games on Thanksgiving Day.
“There is no question the league is suffering negative effects from these protests,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has since gone on to wage his own war against Goodell and fellow owners, said in October. “I care about a lot of things, but our ability to be substantive is based on having a strong NFL, a league that people are really interested in and want to watch games. At all times, if I am anything, I am first and foremost a proponent of making the NFL strong. Making us have as many people watching the game as we can and watching in light of what we are doing and that’s playing football.
“If all this makes you stronger to represent messages, let’s don’t do it in a way that tears down the strength of the NFL.”