One week after President Donald Trump criticized NFL players for protesting during the national anthem, Americans say they are paying close attention to the story and are divided in their attitudes about the protests.
The results come from a nationwide online survey of 1,055 adults 18 and older conducted by Global Strategy Group for ESPN. The sampling is representative of country demographics including gender, race, geographic location and political affiliation. The survey included both sports fans and non-sports fans and was conducted from Sept. 26-28. The margin of error for a survey of this sample size is plus or minus 3 percent.
Asked if they approve or disapprove of the recent NFL player protests, 51 percent said they either somewhat or strongly disapprove, compared to 39 percent who did approve. When broken down by race, 72 percent of African-American respondents either strongly approved or somewhat approved of the protests, while 62 percent of whites either somewhat disapproved or strongly disapproved.
Survey respondents that identified themselves as avid NFL fans were split almost evenly on the protests, with 48 percent strongly or somewhat approving and 47 percent strongly or somewhat disapproving.
People were also split on whether the protests will affect their interest in the NFL. Among all respondents, 14 percent were more interested and 40 percent were less interested -- with 43 percent saying the protests had no impact on their interest. Among avid NFL fans, 48 percent said their interest is not impacted, but 31 percent said they were less interested in the league because of the protests (19 percent said they were more interested).
The latest protests by sports figures came after President Trump criticized NFL players and owners at a political rally Sept. 22 in Alabama and suggested fans leave stadiums if they see players protesting. In the survey, 58 percent of respondents disapproved of the comments, with 36 percent approving. Among avid NFL fans, 64 percent disapproved and 33 percent approved.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they were following the story closely. However, 55 percent said the media is focused too much on the player protests, compared to 29 percent who felt the coverage was right, and 6 percent who felt there was too little. Among fans who consider themselves avid NFL fans, 64 percent feel the media is focusing too much on the story, with 27 percent saying it's just right.
Colin Kaepernick, who was the first player to protest last season, would still be in the league if he hadn't protested and spoken up, 53 percent of respondents said. Only 19 percent disagree, with 29 percent unsure. The survey showed 59 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans agree he would be playing, while 67 percent of African-Americans and 50 percent of whites agree.
A slight plurality -- 46 percent to 44 percent -- disagreed with the statement that athletes should stick to sports and avoid politics on the field.
By a 10-point margin, Americans are more likely to agree that NFL players "have a right to express their views and should not be punished for protesting during the national anthem" (49 percent) than to agree that players are "crossing a line by protesting during the national anthem and should be punished if they keep doing it" (39 percent). A clear majority of avid NFL fans (58 percent) agree that the players should not be punished, while 34 percent believe they should be punished.