Celebrities Take a Knee: Athletes, Actors, and Musicians versus the Reality Show President

By Mark Harvey, author of Celebrity Influence; Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy, available in November.

As any sports fan knows, playing “The Star Spangled Banner” is a time-honored ritual at the opening of American sporting events—a kind of moment of reverence and national prayer to respect the United States and its ideals. Last year, NFL fans watched while Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers kneeled during the national anthem, claiming that he would not show respect for the flag or the country until it lived up to those ideals. Specifically, he expressed concern about the oppression of minorities in the United States.

Predictably, the action drew controversy from many football fans. Some came out in support of Kaepernick, while others argued passionately that athletes and celebrities had no place in politics. The controversy appeared to take a toll on the NFL. According to CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, the protests likely led to lower football ratings. Moreover, the controversy may well have alienated largely conservative owners of NFL teams who contributed 42 times more money to Republican causes over Democratic ones. Thus, despite Kaepernick’s strong performance in the 2016 season, team owners likely viewed Kaepernick and his protests as too explosive for the average armchair quarterback, denying him the opportunity to play football in the 2017 season.

As Kaepernick has fallen out, the NFL has joined in.

At a campaign rally in Alabama on September 22, Donald Trump—the former reality show celebrity and businessman who earned his political stripes by leading the birther movement and ultimately winning the presidency—argued that NFL owners who see players “disrespecting the flag” should say, “get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired!” By Sunday, alarmed players and owners alike collectively “took a knee” in support of players’ first amendment right to free expression, the very action that put Kaepernick in the proverbial hot seat. Even Shad Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars—a man who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration—locked arms with his players during the demonstration at a game in London.

This controversy is only one of many celebrity-fueled political controversies during the Trump presidency. The NFL protests seemed to overshadow Stephen Curry and LeBron James’s criticism of Trump over the same weekend. Attacks on Trump have been a regular feature of entertainment award shows since Meryl Streep criticized Trump for being a “bully” at the Golden Globes. Mass protests such as the Women’s March on Washington have prominently featured celebrities. Even late night host Jimmy Kimmel has set aside his role as comic to advocate for universal health care, using his show as a platform.

What is going on here? Why is there such a proliferation of celebrity activism? More importantly, does it amount to anything? In my forthcoming book Celebrity Influence, I address these questions directly. What does our knowledge of celebrity influence tell us about the recent NFL controversy?

1. This is nothing new

Celebrity activism is not simply a knee-jerk reaction against Trump (pardon the pun). While Trump and Kaepernick, James and Curry, Kimmel and Streep are all important players in current political discourse, celebrity politics is not a new or unique feature of this Trump era. One of the greatest performers of his generation, Paul Robeson—singer, athlete, and the first African American to have a starring role in a film—was blacklisted in the 1950s for his affiliation as a communist, which informed his civil rights activism and appeals on behalf of the poor, starting in the 1930s. Popular singer Harry Belafonte was responsible for drawing attention to the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1970s, John Lennon of the Beatles organized with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and others from the radical left in an effort to prevent Richard Nixon from being re-elected, while Elvis Presley secretly met with Nixon to discuss ways to counter young subversives. In 1992, the bands U2, Public Enemy, and Big Audio Dynamite worked with Greenpeace to protest the nuclear factory near Sellafield in the UK. For years, actor George Clooney has been involved in efforts to expose genocide in Darfur, and Angelina Jolie has been a UN Goodwill Ambassador working on behalf of refugees.

 

This brief list represents a fraction of celebrity political interventions. Kaepernick, the NFL, and others demonstrating on their behalf are part of a chain of celebrities that has spanned generations. However, one could also argue that the number of interventions have likely increased over the years. The more media saturated our society becomes, the more prominent celebrity activism seems to be as celebrities exploit their relationship with media outlets to spotlight causes.

2. There is strength in numbers

Data I gathered for Celebrity Influence suggests not only that celebrities are often more successful at generating attention for political issues, but that the more celebrities involved in an event, the more publicity gained. This stands to reason. A single actor may be a conscientious objector. A large group of celebrities makes a movement. Such was the case with Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington, where dozens of musicians and actors arrived at the event and used it as an opportunity to isolate businesses that engaged in discriminatory practices. A generation later, dozens of celebrities came together in 1984 to record songs like “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are the World,” and to organize the massive Live Aid concert event to raise money and awareness of the famine in Ethiopia. Even the U.S. government responded to the effort by changing the type and amount of aid offered to developing countries in Africa.

 

Large numbers not only increase the profile of a movement—they also provide needed cover for more vulnerable celebrity activists. Keep in mind that the social and economic costs of activism are potentially quite significant for celebrities. The Beatles refused to play concerts in America before segregated audiences.  Given their incredible commercial power at the time, this decision changed the operations of the concert industry. But even the Beatles lost support in the American South for Paul McCartney’s statements against racism and John Lennon’s misunderstood lament that “the Beatles are more popular than Jesus.” Likewise, in 2003, just days before the run up to the Iraq War, the Dixie Chicks were excoriated for saying they were “ashamed that the President of the United States was from Texas” during their London tour, causing them a loss of popularity that they never completely regained.

This case of Kaepernick and the NFL making a political statement is exceptional. According to an analysis prepared for this book, athletes are quite possibly the most vulnerable celebrities when it comes to suffering retribution for protests. The likely reason has to do with the nature of their contracts. Musicians had the least invasive contracts from the 1960s onward as a result of the studios’ changing business model, which gave rock musicians more freedom in the studio. In contrast, film actors were employed exclusively by a single movie studio, television stars appeared on a single program, and athletes performed for a single team, which meant that the image of the stars were seen to reflect positively or negatively on the image of their organizations. While film actors became more autonomous by the 1970s, television actors and athletes continue to be reliant on commercial income for networks and on product endorsements. Athletes watched as professional boxer Muhammed Ali and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos were socially, commercially, and even legally isolated for speaking out against the Vietnam War or inequality. Athletes feared being dropped by their teams or losing key commercial endorsements.

Kaepernick is a perfect case in point. He took a risk by being the first to “take a knee.” As long as Kaepernick was perceived as a threat to television ratings, he could not be allowed to continue in football. However, as long as the entire institution of professional football took a stand, such protest can be allowed. There is strength in numbers—and in the endorsement of owners and the NFL commissioner.

3. These protests have the potential to make a difference

Historically, celebrities who have challenged or worked with presidents may have led to changes in attitudes and even policy. When Arkansas National Guard troops prevented African American students from attending a newly integrated high school in Little Rock, jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong criticized President Dwight Eisenhower for his weak response and refused to play in a goodwill concert in the Soviet Union. Eisenhower eventually sent 1,200 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne to force integration. Baseball player Jackie Robinson was a consistent critic of President John F. Kennedy for vacillating on inequality, and Kennedy eventually moved on civil rights legislation by 1963. Bono, lead singer of U2, had an ongoing lobbying and personal relationship with George W. Bush that culminated in debt relief and support for AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa. While one cannot easily prove that executive action would have been taken without these agents of change, one also cannot easily dismiss the popular pressure that was directed at these presidents as a result of celebrities shining a virtual spotlight on these issues and these presidents.

 

In addition, research for the book offered some interesting results that may tell us a bit about the effectiveness of the NFL protests. First, celebrities were more credible than many politicians on certain political issues and were highly persuasive. In particular, a level of expertise was afforded celebrities who were highly connected to transnational advocacy organizations, like Clooney and Jolie. Likewise, celebrities such as Elton John and Ellen DeGeneres were considered to be authentic on LGBT issues, likely because of their close personal identification with those issues.

Second, while partisans tended to view their own preferred politicians as credible on particularly divisive issues, people also found celebrities more credible than politicians from the opposing party. Thus, celebrities may have a mediating effect in political discourse. Since Watergate, Americans have become less trusting of politicians and American institutions. People believe that celebrities act independently of political self-interest, and may be more trustworthy as outsiders than those currently running the government. Considering these conclusions, it is no surprise that Candidate Trump’s appeals to elect an outsider who would “drain the swamp” would be so appealing to so many.

The NFL protests have the potential to be quite powerful if sustained. Will Trump be moved by players, coaches, and owners locking arms on behalf of free speech and civil rights? Probably not. Sometimes celebrity interventions fail. However, my research shows that these athletes may be quite persuasive to many other citizens and politicians. Indeed, since identity appears to be linked to one’s credibility on an issue, civil rights and free speech is a good match for NFL players. Seventy percent of NFL players are African American, so those black players locking arms with supportive white players have the potential to send an authentic and powerful message to a sympathetic American public. Perhaps it will continue to raise Americans’ awareness of the discrimination and violence that still plagues too many minorities in the United States.

And maybe we’ll see Colin Kaepernick throw the football once again.

Mark Harvey is the Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs at the University of Saint Mary, and the author of Celebrity Influence (out November 2017). You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DrMAHarvey.