Status Politics and the NFL

September 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some issues in status politics have real consequences. Obamacare, for instance. For much of the opposition, Obamacare was less about healthcare than about the status of different groups. The question was not, “Who will have better health insurance?” It was, “Whose country is this anyway?”

In a blog post back in 2009 (here), I quoted a Pennsylvania protestor who shouted at her senator, “This is about the dismantling of the country.” Obamacare became a symbol. It was about how people felt morally, not physically. For the opposition, it symbolized that “their” country had been “taken away” from them. They were going to take it back. (See my post “Repo Men.”)

Republican votes to repeal, up until January 20, 2017, were also symbolic since the GOP representatives  knew there was no chance that Obama would sign the bill into law. But with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, the consequences of repeal would be real, not just symbolic. Even so, they came very close to passing laws that would have had very real and negative consequences for millions of Americans.

There are better vehicles for status politics than issues that have real consequences, especially when the consequences harm the same people that are driving that vehicle. You want issues that are purely symbolic – issues like statues and flags or kneeling and standing. This is not the politics of who gets what and how much it costs; it is the politics of who feels how. In everything that I have read in the last few days about NFL players “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem, none of the arguments for or against was based on the effects their behavior might have. The closest anyone came was Jeff Sessions: “It’s a big mistake to protest in that fashion because it weakens the commitment we have to this nation.” Nor could I find any speculation on the effects that Trump’s call for the players to be fired and for the NFL to make a rule requiring players to stand during the song.

Instead, the arguments were about legitimacy and about right and wrong. So the relevant evidence is not about causes and effects but about who thinks what. In many ways the results are predictable. Republicans agree with Trump; Democrats are more likely to support the dissenting players; Independents are somewhere in between. (The data comes from a Reuters/Ipsos survey of people who have at least some interest in pro football.)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
Overall, fans support the players right to express political opinions (49%-43%), though nearly 60% of Republicans would deny them that right. On the other hand, a majority (58%) also think that the players should be required to stand (among Republicans, 86%).

As for the president’s “You’re fired” suggestion, only the Republican fans agree. Democrats (80%) and Independents (64%) disagree. (Cato survey here )

A majority of the fans also think Trump should have kept his mouth shut on the topic, though again, Republicans sided with Trump.

It’s important to note that these are one-shot polls, at least so far. Subsequent polls, if there are any, with slight difference in wording may get different results. It’s also possible that opinion on this issue may change rapidly, perhaps in the way that attitudes towards same-sex marriage changed in recent years. The sight of several players kneeling during the national anthem may become the new normal.

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