Back in January 2016, our annual look at the year ahead identified polarisation as one of the key drivers of social and demographic trends in the coming years. The gears were in motion long before 2016, but looking back, the world seemed a much simpler place then. Donald Trump was a 6/1 (14.3% implied probability) shot for the presidency – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had odds of 5/1 (16.7%) and 6/1 (14.3%) respectively – and a ‘leave’ vote in the EU referendum was at 9/5 (35.7%). All great examples of the futility of using betting odds to predict future events.

This context of polarisation has serious ramifications for businesses, and the politically sensitive decisions they must make in this highly-charged, polarised climate. This is the quandary that the administrators of the NFL and the owners of franchises currently find themselves in, stuck between a significant number of players protesting police brutality by sitting or kneeling during the national anthem on one side, and the President of the United States on the other. The polarised political nature of the United States at this time means that not only are there vast numbers of supporters on either side, but their attitudes and beliefs towards the flag, nationalism and the right to protest the police or the sitting president are likely to be diametrically opposed.

In the 3rd week of the NFL season, the league appeared to unite in response to Trump telling owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field”, with over 200 players, as well as coaches and owners, joining the protests or showing solidarity with those protesting, and the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, stating that “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture…There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month…Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities”.

According to a poll undertaken by the Sharkey Institute at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, in the week following the widespread protests, 50% of fans were supportive of both the league, and the owners’ positions in backing the players’ right to protest, while just 28% supported the position taken by President Trump in condemning the players.

A different question in the survey, focusing on the players right to protest itself, and not the respective positions of those involved, found that 84% of fans supported the players’ right to protest.

With so many fans backing the rights of the players to kneel during the national anthem – if not the cause – it might surprise you to learn of the volte-face performed by Goodell in the past week with the commissioner finding a slightly different tone, in which a letter to the 32 teams of the NFL stated that the league, “[l]ike many of our fans, believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem…It is an important moment in our game. We want to honour our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”

Source: Seton Hall Sports Poll, The Sharkey Institute

A further look into the Seton Hall data might explain why, and illustrates the difficulties of taking any sort of position that could be construed as political – even one with incredibly broad support. While 84% support the players’ right to protest and 50% backed the league’s position in supporting this right, it is a significant minority of fans that are turning off their televisions that appear to be dictating the NFL’s stance. 29% of fans state that they are watching fewer NFL games this season, and of these 47% say that it is as a result of the players’ protests. For the majority of fans, the protests haven’t affected how much of the sport they’re watching, but for around 13%, it’s enough to switch off the TV; a minority, but one large enough both to damage the league financially, and dictate the statements of the league’s commissioner.

The NFL and its owners are stuck between a rock and a hard place, but it appears that ultimately, their decision will be influenced by the financial, rather than the moral costs.