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Americans Are Far More Likely To Support Athlete Protests Than They Once Were

Nearly 25 years before the NBA shut down for several days to protest racial injustice, before LeBron James tweeted, “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” and before the Milwaukee Bucks left the court in support of Jacob Blake, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf made a protest of his own.

During the 1995-96 season, Abdul-Rauf, the Denver Nuggets’ leading scorer, refused to stand with his teammates for the pregame playing of the national anthem — saying the flag was a symbol of racism and oppression.

But Abdul-Rauf’s protest was met with scorn, not support. He was suspended by the league until he agreed to stand for the anthem and was traded after the season to the Sacramento Kings, where his NBA career effectively ended in 1998. And in a perfect encapsulation of partisan politics on race in the 1990s, the GOP’s 1996 presidential nominee, Bob Dole, criticized Abdul-Rauf’s anthem protest while his Democratic opponent, President Clinton, stayed silent on the issue.

Abdul-Rauf’s plight says a lot about how far the NBA and the general public have shifted on political activism, race and the role athletes should play in these issues.

The NBA of the 1990s was dominated by Michael Jordan and his adamantly apolitical persona. Jordan — who infamously joked that he wouldn’t get involved in the racially polarized 1990 U.S. Senate campaign in his home state of North Carolina because “Republicans buy sneakers, too”— exemplified an era in professional sports when profits were clearly prioritized over politics. In this environment, neither Jordan nor any other NBA All-Star came to Abdul-Rauf’s defense. Some even openly criticized him.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that most white people were also against Abdul-Rauf’s actions. The one national opinion survey on the subject, a March 1996 ABC/Washington Post poll, showed that 76 percent of white people thought the NBA made the right decision by suspending Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand during the national anthem. In contrast to the huge partisan divides in public opinion about racial controversies today, 72 percent of white Democrats and 86 percent of white Republicans supported the suspension.

The country has come a long way since then in support of protesting athletes, though.

When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem four years ago, public opinion was still largely against him. Only about one-third of Americans approved and thought that kneeling during the anthem was an appropriate form of protest. But as the country’s racial attitudes liberalized in response to President Trump’s administration and the Black Lives Matter movement, so has public opinion about athlete protests.

Support for athletes kneeling during the national anthem has steadily increased over the past four years. For example, the share in Fox News Polls who thought that kneeling during the anthem was appropriate increased from 32 percent in September 2016 to 41 percent in September 2017 to 48 percent in July 2020. Recent polls from NBC/Wall Street Journal and YouGov-Yahoo found that a majority of Americans now either support kneeling or think it’s appropriate to kneel during the national anthem.

In keeping with those trends, polling shows that most Americans support the NBA players’ decision last week to strike during the playoffs after a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shot Blake seven times in the back. Online pollster YouGov found that 57 percent of adults supported the NBA boycott, compared to only 28 percent who opposed it, while a live-caller poll of registered voters conducted Aug. 28-31 by Suffolk University/USA Today found 54 percent support and 35 percent opposition.

With the players united and public opinion on their side, the unprecedented wave of sports activism following the Blake shooting and the police killings this year of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was met with a much different response from sports and political leaders than Abdul-Rauf and Kaepernick’s earlier protests. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver penned a letter to league employees after last week’s strike that said, “I wholeheartedly support NBA and WNBA players and their commitment to shining a light on important issues of social justice.” The Democratic Party’s most prominent voices — including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton — took to Twitter to applaud the players. Even Michael Jordan, now the only Black majority owner of an NBA team, is taking strong positions in support of racial equality and player protests. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized in June “for not listening to NFL players earlier,” and he encouraged “all players to speak out and peacefully protest.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t still division on the issue. Trump has been a vocal critic throughout his presidency of athletes who protest, and he said the NBA players’ protests were going to “destroy basketball.” Most Republicans seemed to share his opinion. While 82 percent of Democrats surveyed by YouGov supported the NBA’s protest, just 21 percent of Republicans did.

But something has clearly changed since Abdul-Rauf first refused to stand. It is now less costly for Black athletes to advocate for racial justice than it was for Abdul-Rauf or Kaepernick. Those reduced barriers seem likely to lead to even more athlete activism that shines a spotlight on racial injustices in America going forward.

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”