Trump vs the NFL: AI Insight into Player Protests


In a week where North Korea insisted that America had declared war and Puerto Rico suffered one of the worst natural disasters in its history, headlines were nonetheless dominated by a war of words between Donald Trump and the National Football League.  Speaking in Alabama, the President declared that he would like to see NFL owners whose players knelt during the national anthem to “get that son of a b*tch off the field right now. He’s fired.” Trump’s comments insisting that players be compelled to stand during the national anthem put a spotlight a handful of NFL players who continued the protest initiated last year by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In response to Trump’s comments, every NFL team – and nearly every owner – offered some version of protest in Week 3.

The controversy around the NFL protests and Trump’s comments raised many questions about the nature of peaceful protest, what the national anthem represents and, what rights are protected by the First Amendment. These are thorny, complicated questions, and researchers at Unanimous AI sought to untangle them by forming a swarm of thirty American voters inside our Swarm AI™ platform. Of those voters, 17 were registered Independents, seven were Democrats and seven Republicans. The goal for this swarm was to offer guidance into the validity of the President’s stance, but in the end, the results offered by the swarm dig even deeper into what it really means to be an American.

First, our researchers wanted to know, should pro athletes be required to stand for the national anthem? 

As you can see in the replay above, this swarm “strongly disagrees” that NFL players should be required to stand for the national anthem. A subsequent question also revealed that the swarm registered High Confidence in the idea that NFL players should “not be fired” for kneeling during the anthem. In Week 3, many players chose to kneel, but some teams chose to remain in their locker rooms during the anthem, avoiding the question of to-kneel-or-not-to-kneel entirely. Curiously, people on both sides of the debate have criticized those teams that remained in their locker rooms, but all NFL teams remained in their locker rooms for the anthem until 2009. So, what changed? Starting in 2010, the U.S. government has paid the NFL millions of dollars for patriotic displays of the flag and and anthem before games, and the NFL Game Operations Manual now dictates that players be on the sideline during the playing of the national anthem.

Given the importance both sides place on the First Amendment and the protection of freedom of speech, participation in these displays of patriotism raises a question that’s crucial to our understanding of what it means to be an American: which is more in line with the Constitution and American principles, peaceful protest or mandatory standing for the flag and anthem? Here again our researchers turn to the swarm of voters for insight, and here again the swarm of independents, Democrats and Republicans was quite clear in its response. Despite ideological differences, the swarm registered a Brainpower of 99%, indicating clear collaboration and quick convergence.

Were this issue as simple as a dispute between Trump and a few athletes over policy, it likely would have dissipated quickly. But, in the wake of Trump’s “both sides are to blame” for the violence in Charlottesville speech, his critics have been quick to read racial overtones into his preoccupation with this issue. As the Chicago Tribune opined, Trump might be “fighting with black players to charm his white supporters” and Rachel Maddow insisted that “Trump planned to make a divisive issue out of anthem protests.” the President himself insisted on Twitter that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” With that in mind, our researchers wanted to know, why did Colin Kaepernick begin this protest in the first place? Was he simply trying to disrespect the flag, as the President asserts, or was raising awareness of racial inequality his goal? 

Colin Kaepernick described his own motivation for kneeling in August of last year, stating “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” and the swarm’s response in the replay above indicates its confidence that the complicated gesture had more to do with racial inequality than disdain for America. Using the Faction Analysis tool provided by our Swarm Insight® portal allows us to look deeper into that response. As you can see, the swarm’s support for Kaepernick’s motivation to be “drawing attention to inequality” is the highest in the beginning, with “against police brutality” coming in second. As the swarm navigates this question, nearly every voter in the group abandons “against flag / anthem” entirely, resulting in an optimized answer in just over ten seconds.

So, where does that leave us? This swarm of voters seems to reveal that peaceful protest is an inherently American act, and the NFL players’ ability to do so is even more in line with American principles than forcing them to stand for the flag and anthem before games. Going further, the swarm revealed its conviction that, by inserting himself into a debate that had fizzled to only a smattering of player protests, the President had turned the discussion about racial inequality into a protest of the POTUS himself.

With all of that said, the swarm was equally decisive in revealing that, despite the current controversy and its belief in the players’ right to kneel, that the anthem is an “important tradition” that still belongs at the beginning of major sporting events. In this, this swarm of disparate American voters seems to have a kindred spirit in Voltaire, who once said “I disapprove what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” quote that’s cited often in debates around the burning of the American flag. In other words, whether you interpret Kaepernick’s kneeling and the protests and controversy that followed as an important step towards highlight racial inequality, or an intentional disrespect of the flag, this swarm of voters revealed that what’s most important is that peaceful protest be allowed to occur in America, and that the anthem should still be played for those who choose to stand for it.

Here is the complete look at the Swarm’s Guide to the NFL Protests

To learn more about our Swarm AI™ technology,  check out Dr. Rosenberg’s TED talk below…

Every week Unanimous A. I. brings together swarms of regular people just like you to help us predict sporting events, investment opportunities, and technology as well as provide insight into everything from pop culture to politics. If you’d like information on joining a swarm – or just want to stay up to date on the latest predictions – click the button below.

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