WASHINGTON - Most Americans think refusing to stand for the national anthem is disrespectful to the country, the military and the American flag. But most also disapprove of President Donald Trump's calling for National Football League players to be fired for refusing to stand.
The NFL protests began last season with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem to bring more attention to the killings of black men by police officers. The protests spread this season, as the former San Francisco 49er was unable to sign on with another team and as Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said he had been racially profiled by Las Vegas police, and then Trump sounded off.
According to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 52 percent of Americans disapprove of professional athletes who have protested by refusing to stand during the national anthem, compared with 31 percent who approve. At the same time, 55 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump's call for firing players who refuse to stand, while 31 percent approve.
In the poll, African-Americans were far more likely to approve of the players' protests.
"I don't see kneeling while the anthem is being played as being disrespectful," said Mary Taylor, 64, a retired law librarian from Olympia, Washington.
Taylor, who is white, said she supported police but understood why players were protesting. And her personal politics also factor in.
"I'm for it because Donald Trump is against it," she said.
The form of the protest seems to matter. The poll found Americans were more likely to approve than disapprove of players who, instead of kneeling, linked arms in solidarity during the anthem, 45 percent to 29 percent.
Reluctance to acknowledge
"People don't want to be confronted with their racism in any form. If they are confronted with it, they want it in the mildest form possible," said DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist who has protested police actions since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The NFL protests got more attention and morphed into a bigger debate about patriotism after Trump told a crowd at an Alabama rally last month: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out! He's fired. Fired!' "
That prompted dozens of NFL players, and a few team owners, to join in protests. They knelt, raised fists or locked arms in solidarity during pregame ceremonies when the anthem was played.
Broken down by race, 55 percent of African-Americans approved of players refusing to stand for the anthem, and 19 percent disapproved, the poll found. Among whites, 62 percent disapproved and 25 percent approved.
Seventy-nine percent of blacks disapproved of Trump's call for players to be fired, while just 8 percent approved. Among whites, 48 percent disapproved and 38 percent approved.
Thomas Sleeper of Holden, Massachusetts, said he considered the protests to be free expression protected by the First Amendment, and he said pregame protests were most likely the best stage for them because "individually protesting is not going to get as much press."
"They want people to know that the country isn't living up to its full standard," said Sleeper, 78, who is white. "This is a way to get noticed, and possibly get some action taken."
Chandler, Arizona, business owner Larry Frank, 67, said the protests were inappropriate and disrespectful to military veterans. Trump's response, he said, was "dead on."
"We should keep politics out of our sports," said Frank, who served in the Air Force. "We pay them to come out and play games and entertain us. Using this medium is not the right way to do it. Do it off the field. Let's not interfere with the process of a good business and a fun sport."
The poll showed that overall, about 6 in 10 Americans agreed with the assessment that refusing to stand for the anthem was disrespectful to the military, and most also said they thought it was disrespectful to the country's values and the American flag. About 6 in 10 blacks said they did not consider it disrespectful.
Just 4 in 10 Americans overall, and about half of African-Americans, said they thought refusing to stand for the flag could be an act of patriotism.
Frank, an avid Arizona Cardinals fan who is white, said he planned to boycott watching football on Veterans Day to show his disgust with the players' protest, part of a larger campaign being promoted on social media.
Thomas Peoples of New Brunswick, New Jersey, said the protests were a personal decision for each player. He said he didn't think their actions were meant to show disrespect for the country or the military.
Still, he would not participate in such a protest.
"It's not my approach to resolve a problem," said Peoples, 66, who is black. "I'm not a protester. But they're expressing their feelings about how some Americans are treated in this country."
The AP-NORC poll of 1,150 adults was conducted September 28-October 2 using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which was designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents was plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. The poll included a total of 337 black respondents, who were sampled at a higher rate than their proportion of the population for purposes of analysis. The margin of sampling error among blacks was plus or minus 5.7 percentage points. For results reported among all adults, responses among blacks were weighted to reflect their proportion among all U.S. adults.