#ImWithKap: How Social Media Impacted NFL Athlete Activism

By Grace Rozembajgier (’23)

The past eight years have seen racial justice come to the forefront of the American social discussion, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement. Since Kaepernick’s resistance in 2016, racial awareness for equality and the Black Lives Matter movement has increased in the sports world. Most notably, this past summer, the police killing of George Floyd provoked the NFL to finally make a public stand against racism through its “It Takes All of Us” campaign. Data regarding the league’s social media support for the Black Lives Matter movement and its political market can give insight to the NFL’s response into player activism.

Background

On August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick remained seated for the national anthem before a preseason game; this moment would dramatically change the discussion around athlete activism. Kaepernick explained his choice, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color” (1). Within a week, Kaepernick switched from sitting to kneeling, a more active form of protest. This simple act of solidarity quickly gained traction, despite lacking support from the NFL and political figures. Almost a week after Kaepernick first began his peaceful protest, he received support from President Obama. Yet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell disapproved, emphasizing he “support[ed]… players when they want to see change in society….On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL” , effectively deeming Kaepernick’s actions unpatriotic (1).  Despite this, about a dozen NFL players joined Kaepernick, kneeling for the anthem (2). The movement spread across sports and ages, as the U.S. Women’s National Team’s Megan Rapinoe and even high schoolers participated. As these protests continued throughout fall 2016, the presidential election of Donald Trump added fuel to the fire as he characterized the protests in a political and partisan way. Trump involved himself in the protests, pitting himself against the activists and calling for the firing of players who knelt for the anthem. He continued to shame the league for allowing the activism to take place, and when the NFL announced in May 2018 that players would no longer be allowed to kneel on the sidelines, Trump praised the decision (1). 

While NFL teams refused to sign Kaepernick in 2017, players continued the fight–they kept kneeling and worked towards negotiations with the NFL through the Player’s Coalition. However, it was social media that allowed the movement to make an even bigger splash in the public eye. Perhaps the most significant example of this is Nike’s signing Kaepernick to be the face of their 2018 “Just Do It” campaign, a highly politically charged yet individually-targeted ad that circled social media heavily and even won an Emmy (1). The timing of this advertisement was significant. In 2017, when the NFL signed an agreement to donate $89 million to criminal justice reform and education programs, the number of players kneeling declined. Nike’s ad reinvigorated Kaepernick’s campaign, as tens of thousands conveyed their support on Super Bowl Sunday 2019 with the hashtag #ImWithKap. NBA fan favorites LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry wore Kaepernick’s jersey that weekend and hundreds of verified athletes and artists tweeted their support and boycotted the big game. The hashtag had received over 18 thousand mentions before the game started and, as of September 21, 2021, is still active today. Kaepernick, too, played an influential role in this social media storm as he retweeted and shared his thanks on Twitter and Instagram (3). Shortly after the Super Bowl, the NFL reached an agreement with Kaepernick regarding his unemployment in the league, and Kaepernick later was invited to a private workout.

Despite the NFL’s staunch refusal to officially support the players’ activism, George Floyd’s murder and the following protests marked a shift. After a week of silence on the matter, the NFL formally apologized to the players. On June 4, 2020, the league first shared on Twitter, “This is a time of self-reflection for all – the NFL is no exception. We stand with the [B]lack community because Black Lives Matter.” The next day, the NFL Twitter account shared a video made by several players –including Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Patrick Mahomes, and Odell Beckham, Jr.–in which the players powerfully stated, “I am George Floyd” and asked the NFL to take responsibility, saying, 

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players for peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe Black lives matter” (4)

The NFL promptly responded in a video released on Twitter the same day, in which Goodell recited those exact lines, adding, “I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country” (5). 

While Goodell never explicitly referenced the league’s treatment of Kaepernick and other players who knelt, the players’ statement implied this. The league’s social media then transformed into one actively supporting Black players, sharing players’ quotes with the hashtag #InspireChange, corresponding to the league’s social justice initiative. Additionally, NFL quarterbacks increasingly rallied behind their fellow signal caller, Kaepernick, and spoke up for change. Before “Blackout Tuesday,” a June 2, 2020, day of social media solidarity, 52% of NFL starting quarterbacks on social media had voiced their support. The following day, 85% of quarterbacks had made a social media statement, with 68% coming from white players (2). Three months later, in September 2020, the league unveiled a campaign titled “It Takes All of Us”which continued the NFL’s message of allyship, as it promised to have the phrases “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” painted on every stadium’s end zones. While this initiative was well-intentioned, the NFL faced some backlash, as other sports leagues such as the MLB, NBA, and WNBA wrote the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on their fields and courts (6). As critics scrutinized the NFL for not being as direct in their solidarity as other sports leagues, one must consider why this is the case.

A close examination of data revealing the political market of the NFL compared to other sports leagues can help answer this question. FiveThirtyEight conducted a study analyzing fans’ expressed interest via Internet searches and Trump’s vote share in the 2016 election. It revealed that the NFL has the most bipartisan fan base compared to the left-leaning NBA, MLB, and NHL, and the right-leaning NCAA basketball, NASCAR, and NCAAF. In other words, the NFL has much more to lose when its players (or the league itself) participate in social activism compared to the NBA, which “has a largely left-leaning following” (7). 

This analysis of the political characteristics of sports markets lays the groundwork for a more intensive look at data involving the intersection between the sports and political worlds. A closer look at the social media accounts of individual NFL teams and sports leagues reveals how the political market shapes activism. In essence, a deeper dive into this data will convey both how athlete activism can play out off the field through social media and how these efforts also have their political limits.

Methods

To build off these striking political trends, I closely examined social media because of this platform’s importance in the spread of Colin Kaepernick’s message. I specifically looked at the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM for the WNBA, NBA, and NFL Twitter accounts to determine how these leagues conveyed their support for Black Lives Matter to their followers through social media.

After compiling all the tweets that each of these accounts had with #BlackLivesMatter or #BLM, I found the WNBA had a total of 13 posts with the respective hashtags, the NFL had three, and the NBA had four (Figure 1).

Chart, bar chart

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The following graph depicts how these tweets compare over time, with the WNBA’s posts represented by the red dots, the NBA with black dots, and the NFL with blue dots (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Scatter plot describing #blacklivesmatter posts over time

Figure 2 effectively conveys how the WNBA’s tweets occurred on a more consistent basis than the NBA. While the NFL only has three data points, two occurred in the summer of 2020 and one the following winter. A closer look at Figure 2 reveals that each league has significant outliers. For the NBA, the tweet that received the most retweets (Point A), was their post on Blackout Tuesday, which received 1.6 thousand retweets and read “#BlackLivesMatter #BlackoutTuesday #NBATogether” (8). For the WNBA, their most circulated Black Lives Matter tweet was also in June 2020 (Point B); it was a video of several WNBA players expressing their solidarity for the movement with the text “#BlackLivesMatter” (9). Finally, for the NFL, their most circulated post (Point C) was also their most recent one in December 2020 – “@Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore wrote a letter to his son, Bash, about #BlackLivesMatter and his hopes for the future. Then he put the letter on his cleats. Powerful. #MyCauseMyCleats | @BumpNrunGilm0re | #ItTakesAllOfUs” (10).

When analyzing these most popular tweets, for the WNBA, the entirety of the text is “#BlackLivesMatter” whereas, for the NBA and the NFL, there are additional hashtags: #NBATogether, #MyCauseMyCleats, and #ItTakesAllOfUs. This nuance encouraged me to explore how the WNBA, NBA, and NFL spread their activism and support for the Black Lives Matter movement through hashtags commonly associated with the #BlackLivesMatter posts. Through a data scraping analysis of each league’s Twitter page, I found that for the WNBA, these hashtags were #SayHerName #MakeWayMakeChange. For the NFL, it was the hashtags #MyCauseMyCleats and #ItTakesAllOfUs, and for the NBA, it was #NBATogether. Analyzing the frequency, circulation, and content of these hashtags indicates the story behind each league’s social media response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Findings

The WNBA’s #SayHerName was a Twitter campaign started specifically to spark conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement beginning July 6, 2020. The WNBA posted twenty-nine times with this hashtag, and most of these tweets centered around the Black Lives Matter movement. This collection of tweets shows the WNBA’s solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The same was the case for #MakeWayMakeChange. Created at the beginning of the 2020 season in July, this slogan was not originally associated with Black Lives Matter but instead advocated for the sisterhood strength of WNBA athletes (11). As the season and summer went on, the hashtag evolved to include tweets directed towards social activism. For example, in late September 2020, the account shared a tweet sharing Washington Mystics player Natasha Cloud’s efforts to spread voter participation with the hashtag #MakeWayMakeChange, and a photo of Cloud at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest (12). In short, the WNBA hashtags associated with Black Lives Matter directly supported the Black Lives Matter cause.

The NFL and the NBA tell a different story. For the NFL, #MyCauseMyCleats launched in October of 2016, corresponding with the height of Colin Kaepernick’s activism kneeling on the sidelines. Interestingly, this hashtag highlighted athlete activism off the field through showcasing signature footwear. Figure 3 graphs all the NFL tweets that have this hashtag.

Chart, scatter chart

Description automatically generated

When looking at all the data points, there are two clear outliers. The first (Point A) occurs in December 2016, corresponding to a tweet featuring Dak Prescott, honoring his recently deceased mother (13). The second most circulated tweet, Point B, was the most popular #BlackLivesMatter tweet featuring Gilmore.

The NFL frequently included #ItTakesAllOfUs with #BlackLivesMatter posts in correspondence to the NFL “It Takes All Of Us” campaign dedicated to combating racism. As Figure 4 illustrates, the NFL’s Twitter account posted many tweets with this hashtag, a total of 52, averaging around 865 retweets. 

Chart, scatter chart

Description automatically generated

The three outliers in Figure 4 – Points A, B, and C – each received multiple thousands of retweets plus quote tweets, and all occurred on September 10, 2020, bringing the average number of retweets to value up significantly. Notably, September 10 was the beginning of the 2020 NFL season. Point A represents a tweet showing all the players on “the quest for the Lombardi trophy” and received over seven thousand retweets and quote tweets (14). With 7.5 thousand retweets and quote tweets combined, Point B marks the NFL’s tweet “End racism” with a picture of the phrase spray-painted Kansas City Chiefs’ end zones. The most popular tweet, Point C, was a video of Chiefs and Texans players standing in solidarity during “a moment of silence dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country” (15), a direct result of Colin Kaepernick’s activism. 

While the NFL’s most circulated #ItTakesAllOfUs tweets were directly associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, many of these tweets were not. Often, these tweets were videos of players warming up for practice, something unrelated to the mission of the #ItTakesAllOfUs campaign. 

Finally, the NBA’s hashtag that was most associated with social and racial justice initiatives was #NBATogether, which had a total of 980 tweets. In comparison, #ItTakesAllOfUs had 52 tweets, and #SayHerName had 29 tweets.

Chart, scatter chart

Description automatically generated

Figure 5 consolidates the hashtag’s Twitter appearances and illustrates how its most popular spikes circulated on three main dates. The hashtag debuted in February 2017 to showcase Black History Month. Then, it did not see a return until March 2020, when the NBA reintroduced the hashtag as a campaign to facilitate unity during the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, this hashtag experienced significant interaction with the NBA fan base in June 2020, coinciding with the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Figure 5 has evident outliers, as in Figure 4.  For the NBA, these outliers (Points A, B, and C) received thousands of retweets each and circulated the three main dates mentioned above: February 2017, March 2020, and June 2020. Not surprisingly, these three tweets correlate with Black History Month, coronavirus, and the Black Lives Matter movement, respectively. 

Analysis

A collective look at this data may first indicate #BlackLivesMatter posts were more successful when posted with additional hashtags, especially for the NBA and the NFL. However, this is insufficient data to assume causation. Instead, the WNBA’s more vocal and targeted social media activism than the NBA and NFL is significant. On WNBA social media platforms, the #MakeWayMakeChange and #SayHerName campaigns targeted racial justice efforts; the NBA’s and NFL’s additional hashtags were for promotional purposes and not specific to the Black Lives Matter movement. NFL fans’ bipartisan split compared to the more liberal NBA and WNBA fan bases possibly play a key role in how those accounts interact with their fans and the content of their posts. 

Compared to the NBA and the NFL, the WNBA has perhaps the most liberal fan base. As a CNN analysis found, “WNBA fans are more likely to be women, have college degrees, and be Black adults,” all factors which contribute to a traditionally left-leaning political stance (16). A 2013 study from Scarborough Research indicates that when comparing Democratic/Republican skew and voter turnout, the WNBA lays claim to the most Democratic fan base compared to other sports leagues (17). This leaning serves as a possible explanation for the WNBA’s unapologetic support of the Black Lives Matter movement on its Twitter account.

It would be remiss to solely investigate the leagues’ fan bases without considering Twitter’s political makeup, too, as the medium of study. According to a 2019 comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center, “Twitter users are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party compared with U.S. adults more generally,” with a total of 36% of Twitter users identifying as Democrats whereas only 30% of the U.S. population does so (18). Additionally, the study identified several factors contributing to this political leaning: adult Twitter users were reportedly younger, had a higher level of education, and had higher incomes than the average U.S. adult. This data influences the analysis of WNBA, NBA, and NFL Twitter posts. With a more liberal audience on Twitter, hashtags supporting racial justice initiatives were more likely to receive positive feedback. However, other factors, such as each league’s internal attitude towards these causes, play a role. 

The WNBA has been a frontrunner when it comes to athlete activism. Embracing the dual identities of “cause” and “business,” the league utilizes its ability to speak out to broaden its fan base (19). In 2018, most WNBA games were televised on ESPN2 and viewed by a 68% male audience. However, contextually, the league has a fan base “nearly two times more female than average” who also follow the games via social media. Along with the league’s aim to draw in young fans, this data could explain their boldness on Twitter regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, despite viewership being down by 16% for the 2020 season, WNBA games were broadcast on ESPN three times more frequently than a typical season. Additionally, with WNBA fans “2 to 6.6 times more likely than the average sports fan to be interested in politics” and equality efforts, the league’s political market proved to be accepting of social activism (20). Perhaps most tellingly, in a July 2020 poll by Morning Consult, 67% of WNBA fans agreed that sports leagues should play a leading role in “political and cultural issues” (21), a majority supporting the WNBA’s Twitter presence with Black Lives Matter hashtags.

In her 2020 article “Can NFL Owners Keep Up?” Sports Illustrateds Jenny Vrentas describes the NBA as a league that has “embraced and marketed its individuals” while the NFL operates on a hierarchical model. This structural difference is insightful when regarding how the NBA and NFL’s social media presence differed. For the NBA, Lebron James stands out as exemplary of this individualistic approach. While Kaepernick was criticized and shunned by the NFL for his activism, James can take an active role in political discussions – such as supporting Hillary Clinton and criticizing Trump – without losing support from the NBA. While his athleticism outreaches Kaepernick’s, James is part of a league that embraces outspokenness, to the point where he could even mention a possible 2020 presidential candidacy without an uproar from the NBA (22). With 42% of NBA fans identifying as Democrats, 54% identifying as non-white, and 59% agreeing that sports leagues should take a leading role in political and cultural issues, the NBA fan base presents itself as one welcoming of internal activism. However, their less direct approach to Black Lives Matter Twitter content presents countering evidence. Regardless, the NBA states it is “guided by our values” of “equality, diversity and inclusion,” principles supported by their fan base and industrial structure (23). 

On the other hand, a closer look at the NFL can provide insight into its social media presence. Traditionally the NFL is a league reliant on its owners’ prominent roles in their franchises, compared to the NBA, in which team owners often take a more “anonymous” position than their players. The NFL is conscientious of its public perception and “make[s] the decision that hurts their money the least” (22). A recent investigation of NFL owners’ 2018 to 2020 political donations reveals that out of the top nine donors, while the most given was $1,177,744 to a Democratic candidate, seven owners donated to Republican platforms, with Republican donations totaling $2,346,450 (23). The NFL fan base has a slight majority supporting sports activism – with 53% supporting leagues taking a leading role in cultural issues (24). However, the significant Republican leadership conveys the NFL operates on a more “reactive” level to social justice movements rather than embracing them (25). As for Twitter posts and hashtags, the league is tied to political and financial markets of social media feedback, indicating the #ItTakesAllOfUs campaign was perhaps more performative than its NBA and WNBA counterparts.

Conclusion

In his book Sport Fans 2.0, David M. Sutera discusses how Twitter has leveled the playing field of communication and connection between athletes and fans, through each party’s accounts. Regarding the racial justice initiatives of the last decade, it is imperative to consider how league accounts, such as the NFL, NBA, and WNBA, participate as mediators in this conversation. While it may seem as if the NFL should wholeheartedly support an athlete, such as Kaepernick, who has heavy commercial support in their social activism, the political makeup of the NFL fan base conveys the constraints of their willingness to be outspoken on such matters. Through comparing Black Lives Matter Twitter posts from NFL, NBA, and WNBA accounts, it is clear how the politics of sports reach into leagues’ portrayal of current social matters.

Grace Rozembajgier is an American Studies major with minors in Business Economics and Constitutional Studies. Her featured essay was originally written for Professor Kathleen Walden’s American Studies course ‘Sport and Big Data.’

References

  1. Mather, Victor. “A Timeline of Colin Kaepernick vs. the N.F.L.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Feb. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/sports/nfl-colin-kaepernick-protests-timeline.html. 
  2. Paine, Neil. “Four Years After Colin Kaepernick Kneeled, NFL Quarterbacks Are Starting To Speak Out.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 3 June 2020, fivethirtyeight.com/features/four-years-after-colin-kaepernick-kneeled-nfl-quarterbacks-are-starting-to-speak-out/. 
  3. Chiu, Allyson. “#ImWithKap: How Colin Kaepernick Dominated Super Bowl Conversations without Taking the Field.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Feb. 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/02/04/imwithkap-how-colin-kaepernick-dominated-super-bowl-conversations-without-taking-field/. 
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  8. @NBA. “#BlackLivesMatter #BlackoutTuesday #NBATogether.” Twitter, 2 June 2020, 1:29 a.m., https://twitter.com/NBA/status/1267689770337005569.
  9. @WNBA. “#BlackLivesMatter.” Twitter, 9 June 2020, 8:27 p.m., https://twitter.com/WNBA/status/1270512958817304576.
  10. @NFL. “@Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore wrote a letter to his son, Bash, about #BlackLivesMatter and his hopes for the future. Then he put the letter on his cleats. Powerful. #MyCauseMyCleats | @BumpNrunGilm0re | #ItTakesAllOfUs.” Twitter, 14 Dec. 2020, 6:00 p.m., https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1338619780320804864.
  11. @WNBA. “Make Way for the sisterhood that is rising. The 2020 #WNBA season tips off tomorrow #MakeWayMakeChange.” Twitter, 24 June 2020, 12:00 p.m., https://twitter.com/wnba/status/1286692670157533185?lang=en.
  12. @WNBA. “ICYMI: @T_Cloud4 helped to ensure the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Ward 8, home of the @WashMystics, would be used as a super vote center for early voting and Election Day in D.C. #MakeWayMakeChange.” Twitter, 30 Sept. 2020, https://twitter.com/WNBA/status/1311297247439593473.
  13. @NFL. “Tonight @Dak wears these cleats to raise awareness for colon cancer prevention, which his mother passed away from in 2013. #MyCauseMyCleats.” Twitter, 1 Dec. 2016, 5:11 p.m., https://twitter.com/NFL/status/804447807411134466.
  14. @NFL. “The quest for the Lombardi Trophy begins tonight. #ItTakesAllOfUs.” Twitter, 10 Sept. 2020, 7:30 a.m., https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1304019304908763140.
  15. @NFL. “A moment of silence dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country. #ItTakesAllOfUs.” Twitter, 10 Sept. 2020, 8:29 p.m., https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1304215562143195136.
  16. Enten, Harry. “This Is What Happens When the Liberal WNBA and a Republican Senator Collide.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Aug. 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/08/08/politics/wnba-kelly-loeffler-analysis/index.html. 
  17. Hickey, Walt. “Your Politics Are Indicative Of Which Sports You Like.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 Mar. 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/politics-sports-you-like-2013-3. 
  18. Wojcik, Stefan, and Adam Hughes. “How Twitter Users Compare to the General Public.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 24 Apr. 2019, http://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/04/24/sizing-up-twitter-users/. 
  19. Strauss, Ben. “How the WNBA Stood Up to Trump and Won Fans.” POLITICO Magazine, Politico LLC, 4 Aug. 2018, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/08/04/wnba-trump-protest-politics-sports-219155. 
  20. Kleen, Brendon. “WNBA Viewership And Social Engagement Are Reasons For Optimism From Bubble Season.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 22 Oct. 2020, http://www.forbes.com/sites/brendonkleen/2020/10/19/wnba-viewership-and-social-engagement-are-reasons-for-optimism-from-bubble-season/?sh=23c353be5f55. 
  21. Silverman, Alex. “WNBA Fans Don’t Share Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s Desire to ‘Remove Politics From Sports’.” Morning Consult, Morning Consult, 8 July 2020, 2:19 pm, morningconsult.com/2020/07/08/wnba-kelly-loeffler-black-lives-matter-polling/. 
  22. Bacon, Perry. “Why LeBron Can Say Whatever He Wants About Politics.” FiveThirtyEight, ABC News Internet Ventures, 31 July 2018, fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-lebron-can-say-whatever-he-wants-about-politics/. 
  23. Orr, Conor. “Where NFL Owners, Players and Coaches Sent Political Donations This Election Cycle.” Sports Illustrated, ABG-SI LLC, 3 Nov. 2020, http://www.si.com/nfl/2020/11/03/nfl-owners-players-coaches-commissioner-political-donations. 
  24. Silverman, Alex. “Demographic Data Shows Which Major Sports Fan Bases Are Most Likely to Support or Reject Social Justice Advocacy.” Morning Consult, Morning Consult, 10 Sept. 2020, morningconsult.com/2020/09/10/sports-fan-base-demographic-data/. 
  25. Vrentas, Jenny. “Can NFL Owners Keep Up?” Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated, 4 Sept. 2020, http://www.si.com/nfl/2020/09/04/are-nfl-owners-ready-daily-cover. 
  26. Sutera, David M. Sports Fans 2.0: How Fans Are Using Social Media to Get Closer to the Game. Scarecrow, 2013. 
  27. @NFL. “End racism. #ItTakesAllOfUs.” Twitter, 10 Sept. 2020, 6:26 p.m., https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1304184455972618240.

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