GQ named Colin Kaepernick its citizen of the year this week, saying he had transformed himself from “a rippling superhero of a quarterback on the rise” to a “man who became the movement.”
He no longer was simply an athlete: “A simple act – kneeling during the national anthem – changed everything. It cost him his job. It also transformed Colin Kaepernick into a lightning rod and a powerful symbol of activism and resistance.”
The “determined stand” of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who was the first NFL player to kneel for the national anthem, “puts him in rare company in sports history: Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson – athletes who risked everything to make a difference.”
He’s made a difference all right. As of late October, the NFL’s television viewership was down 5.1 percent from last year and 18.7 percent from the same period during 2015.
Attendance is down significantly as well.
The Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, who just moved from San Diego, played home games on the same day early in the season and drew a combined total of about 82,000 fans. The night before, the University of Texas and the University of Southern California played a college game at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Rams play, and drew nearly 84,000.
Tickets for early 49ers games, which retail for more than $100, were going for as little as $14 on ticket services. The Chargers have not come close to selling out its stadium, even though it holds only 27,000.
Advertisers are locked into long-term contracts now, but in two years, TV negotiations will begin anew. Several major sponsors have contacted the NFL to express dissatisfaction with the politicization of the league.
Papa John’s Pizza, which has been advertising with the NFL since 2010 and is the advertiser most closely associated with the league by fans, blamed declining sales on the protests and is known to be reassessing its commitment to the league. USAA, the insurance company that specializes in serving military families, also has expressed concerns.
The decrease in interest in the league’s games has been attributed to many sources. There is less viewership of live sports across the board. There are new concerns about the brain injuries that have afflicted some players. Several stars are injured and out for the season, including Aaron Rogers, Odell Beckham Jr., and J.J. Watt, and others have retired, including Peyton Manning and Tony Romo.
But the protests accounted for virtually the entire decline.
A survey from CivicScience, conducted in October, asked the most important reasons fans were watching fewer NFL games this year. The survey found 36 percent of fans were watching less because of the anthem protests. No other category attracted more than 6 percent.
The number had spiked to 41 percent the previous month, when President Trump tweeted that owners should punish players for protesting and players responded with stepped up protests. Only 37 percent said they were watching as much NFL as before. That means more people were withdrawing from the league than embracing it.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has gone from supporting the players to organizing a meeting earlier this month to try to find a way forward that did not involve the league strictly enforcing its rules that require all players to stand for the anthem. He tried to organize a second meeting, but the players balked because Kaepernick was not invited.
The TV networks have gone from covering and commenting on the protests to avoiding showing them at all.
“The fact is, we have about a half-dozen players that are protesting,” Goodell said to reporters last week. “We are hoping to continue to try and work and get that to zero.”
It is not Kaepernick who is hurting from these protests. He has become a hero of the #resist crowd, recently signed a book deal for more than $1 million and has filed a grievance against NFL owners that charges they have colluded to keep him out of the league this year.
This is a problem for the league Kaepernick seeks to rejoin. It can let its players make political statements or its fans enjoy the games.