Beginning in August 2016, a number of National Football League players bucked tradition and defiantly kneeled instead of standing during the “Star-Spangled Banner” in protest of racial inequality and police brutality. The act drew both praise and rebuke from fans, politicians and the public at large—and unequivocal condemnation from NFL team owners and executives.
Perceived as disruptive to the league and interfering with fans’ enjoyment, that act of dissent proved to have negative career consequences for the players who kneeled. Case in point: The first to take a knee was San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. NFL team owners and executives condemned Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract the following year and has yet to resume playing in the league.
A recent study by Leeds School of Business Assistant Professor Ethan Poskanzer examined the career trajectories of the first 50 NFL athletes to kneel in protest during a pregame national anthem in 2016. It found that players who participated in the protest often subsequently left their teams. This happened in a few different ways: a team released a player under contract or traded the player to another team; a player’s contract expired and he chose to move to another team bidding to employ him; or the player retired.
In addition, sometimes the player’s existing team would make a less-enticing offer than others in the league. Generally, “protesting players were more likely to get a better offer elsewhere than similar players who didn’t protest,” said Poskanzer, an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship.
The study also found that players who kneeled were more likely to move to teams in which the team managers, personnel decision-makers and owners were more supportive of the protest and sympathetic to the underlying social movement.
“When a player who protested leaves a team that was not supportive of the protests, when the other teams are looking at who to hire, that player might get a relatively better offer from the teams that are supportive of this kind of protest,” Poskanzer said.
Another key finding: Players who protested in a less-supportive team environment earned less money for the next five years than other players on more supportive teams.
The study, published in May 2023 in the journal Organization Science, was led by Poskanzer and Alexandra Rheinhardt, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business, and co-authored by Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization at the Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business.
The study’s implications reach beyond football to any workplace, according to the researchers. Poskanzer points to increasing employee activism in recent years at companies including Google, Amazon, Wayfair and Walmart, where employees have staged walkouts or protests on a range of social issues, including immigration and climate policy. At public companies, the risks may be even greater given the visibility of protests to stakeholders and the perception that they undermine the organization’s reputation, according to the paper.
“We think this applies to any job or organization where protest could be viewed as outside the norms of that workplace,” Poskanzer said. “A lot of workplaces have norms—and the NFL is one of those where you don’t bring your whole self to work. When you’re at work you’re supposed to be doing what’s best for the company’s interest. But this theory could apply elsewhere.”
The researchers chose the NFL as a setting to test the career consequences of protest participation because they could collect career-related information for every player throughout the movement and compare the career paths of protesters and those who didn’t protest. The NFL was also chosen because it is a “norm-filled labor market with league-wide written manuals governing personal player conduct and game operations that dictate what players can and cannot do,” according to the paper.
The study included data on players who were on NFL rosters at the start of the 2016 season when the protests occurred, then tracked those players’ careers through the end of the 2019 season. Researchers controlled for factors including 2015 salary, tenure and the quality and performance of players.
A shifting NFL landscape
Although the “take a knee” movement has gained steam in the seasons and years since 2016, with dozens of NFL players and members of other sports teams now kneeling during the national anthem, the researchers focused on the 2016 season.
“We made this decision because, at the beginning of the 2017 season, then-President Donald Trump made a public statement in which he called for protesting NFL players to be fired,” the paper stated. “In opposition to the president’s remarks, entire teams began demonstrating, including many NFL coaches and team owners. This collective (and almost league-wide) action suggests decision-makers altered their stances on the players’ movement—at least temporarily—such that protests that took place after Trump’s comments were treated differently than those before the comments.”
NFL executive attitudes have shifted, particularly following the 2020 murder of George Floyd in police custody and subsequent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and league owners publicly declaring their intention to be more aware of the need for racial unity.
The “take a knee” protests are a form of employee activism that breaks behavioral norms in the workplace, according to the researchers. How protests are interpreted depends on how sympathetic an organization's decision-makers are to the cause.
“We’re not offering people a judgment on whether they should or should not protest,” Poskanzer said. “It’s something that everyone has to decide for themselves—what’s important to them. But we do think it’s valuable to show that in some situations, it can have negative career consequences to take into account when deciding whether to participate.”