Poll: Majority of voters believe NFL kneeling isn't unpatriotic

A majority of Americans do not believe taking a knee during the national anthem is an inherently unpatriotic act, according to a new poll released by Quinnipiac University.

NFL players, as you may have heard, have spent the last 20 months or so embroiled in a controversy over kneeling during the national anthem. While the players have consistently tried to push the message that the protests are meant to bring attention to systemic racism, outside commentators — including the President of the United States — have reframed the protests as a mandate on patriotism — i.e., stand or you’re unpatriotic.

Not so, say 58 percent of American voters. That’s the percentage who indicated that NFL players who kneel in protest aren’t being unpatriotic by doing so. The poll split along ideological lines; 70 percent of self-identified Republicans say that the players are indeed unpatriotic, and white voters split 46-46 percent on the issue, but all other party, gender, education, age, and racial groups fell into the “not unpatriotic” category.

Do athletes have the right to protest on the field?

Voters indicated by a 53-43 margin that professional athletes do indeed have the right to protest on the playing field; the question of whether a protest is “at the appropriate time” is one objection that opponents often raise. This question fractures sharply along party lines; 82 percent of Democrats say the players have the right to protest, while 81 percent of Republicans say they do not.

Along racial lines, 85 percent of black voters and 67 percent of Hispanic voters said players have the right to protest, while 53 percent of white voters said they do not.

A recent Yahoo Sports/YouGov poll found that a majority of fans support the NFL’s new anthem policy. This, of course, does not contradict the Quinnipiac survey; it’s possible to both support a policy that mandates individual expression in the workplace and also not believe that individual expression is unpatriotic. The Quinnipiac poll found similar support for the anthem, and 51 percent oppose the NFL fining teams for protests during the anthem.

“Voters are clearly torn on the national anthem issue. They seem to be saying, ‘You can still love your country and kneel during its anthem,’ but the NFL’s new ‘must stand’ mandate is fine with them, too,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, in a statement. “As for teams that defy the new rule, Americans say, ‘Don’t throw a flag on them.’”

The big picture

It’s important, as always, to keep in mind a few key facts: the so-called “anthem protests” aren’t really protests of the anthem itself, they’re protests designed to bring attention to questions of social injustice and police brutality. The protests don’t interrupt game play, they don’t stop traffic, they don’t physically inconvenience anyone, and they don’t last any longer than the two minutes or so it takes to sing the national anthem.

While many Americans do see any form of protest during the anthem as dishonoring the flag — which, like protesting, is a perfectly valid and worthy belief — anyone who’s ever been to a game knows that during the anthem, there’s plenty of talking, beer-buying and bathroom visiting happening in the crowd … none of which qualifies as “respectful anthem behavior.”

The anthem issue won’t be going away any time soon, especially because President Trump has a tendency to use it as a rallying point for a percentage of his base. But in any situation, more information is always better, and this poll is one bit of information that breaks the protesters’ way.

The Quinnipiac poll surveyed 1,223 voters from May 31 to June 5, with a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percentage points.

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.