From Da Coach, Mike Ditka, to Da President, Donald Trump, fired-up critics of kneeling and fist-raising during the national anthem have suggested that protesting NFL players are un-American.
“That’s a total disrespect of our heritage,” Trump told a crowd in Alabama last month.
“If you don’t respect our country, you shouldn’t be in this country playing football,” Ditka said in a radio interview Monday.
Strictly speaking, the NFL is actually the most American of the four major sports leagues in the United States.
Among the vast records maintained by Sports Reference are the birthplaces of virtually every athlete ever to play in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association (and, pre-merger, the American Basketball Association). A Fix review of the data shows that the overwhelming majority, 84.5 percent, of hockey players who have appeared in NHL games were foreign-born. Additionally, 1 in 9 MLB players was foreign-born, and the rate in pro basketball is 1 in 10.
Just 1 in 39 NFL players was born in a foreign country.
It turns out that the league with the most native-born players is also the league with the most protests. Maybe — just maybe — the NFL is a hub of political and social expression not because it is full of players who don’t love or care about the country but because it is full of players who do.
And maybe — just maybe — hockey players have abstained from demonstrations (save for J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning) not because they are more patriotic than their counterparts on the gridiron but because they are somewhat detached from the politics of a country they did not grow up in and, in many cases, they live in on a part-time basis or not at all. (Seven of the NHL’s 31 teams are based in Canada.)
Protesting NFL players, who say their demonstrations are intended to call attention to racial inequality, are often accused of lacking reverence for the military. For example: After walking out of a game Sunday at which some players knelt for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Vice President Pence tweeted that he “will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.”
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, one of the players whose kneeling prompted Pence’s exit, said after the game that “this is not about the military. This is not about the flag. This is not about the anthem. My mother served in the armed forces. Three of my uncles served in the armed forces. . . . I have the utmost respect for the military, for the anthem, for the flag.”
There is no easy way to calculate how many NFL players, like Reid, have personal ties to the military. But it is possible to calculate which states have produced current NFL players at the highest rates (using data from Sports Reference and the Census Bureau) and compare the results to military enlistment rates.
In other words, we can see whether the environments most likely to promote military service — patriotic environments, presumably — are the same environments most likely to yield pro football players.
According to the Defense Department, the states with the highest enlistment rates in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available, were:
- South Carolina
The states that churn out NFL players at the highest rates are:
- South Carolina
There is a lot of overlap here. Four of the six states are the same.
Alternatively, we can use raw numbers to compare the states with the most service members — active-duty and reserve — to the states that produced the most players currently in the NFL — the idea being to see whether the states most frequently represented in professional football also have large military populations.
The states with the most current NFL players are:
- Florida (230)
- California (225)
- Texas (190)
- Georgia (122)
- Ohio (92)
- Louisiana (72)
According to the Defense Department, the states with the largest military populations, as of June, are:
- California (186,634)
- Texas (164,668)
- North Carolina (115,554)
- Virginia (114,922)
- Florida (92,321)
- Georgia (85,776)
Again, four of the top six states are the same.
All of these numbers are, of course, very rough ways of measuring what are inherently immeasurable qualities such as Americanism and respect for the military. But, when trying to judge what is in the hearts of NFL players, it is worth remembering where they come from. The answer is almost always the United States, in general, and often a military hotbed, specifically.