Dave Korzinski is a research associate at the Angus Reid Institute. Shachi Kurl is the institute's executive director.
Colin Kaepernick may not have known it when he knelt for the anthem in a preseason game in 2016, but he was setting a movement in motion. Fast-forward a year to a reignited "stick to sports" debate after a speech by U.S. President Donald Trump in Alabama last week, and the weekend of protests that followed.
Across the National Football League, players took a knee together, or joined hands. NFL owners, many who donated millions to Mr. Trump's campaign, stood with players.
We know Canadians were watching, and weighing in – with friends online, around the table for Sunday dinner, and at the office early this week. That's not based on anecdotes, but data. Our past polling shows that in this country, engagement with and eyeballs on the NFL is second only to the National Hockey League in several provinces – and more popular than the Canadian Football League among the all-lucrative 18- to 34-year-old market.
So what do those of us watching from this side of the border make of it all?
On the football field, shows of unity came to Regina on Sunday as the Roughriders linked arms during the Canadian national anthem at Mosaic Stadium. Offensive lineman Derek Dennis noted that "just because we're north of the border we're not blind to what's going on back home." Many of the team's players are from the United States, some having played in the NFL.
Off the field, the Angus Reid Institute asked Canadians earlier this year and found solid support for some acts of athlete protest, more rigid discomfort when it came to others.
First, a firm majority, 57 per cent, say that they back the right of professional athletes to use their platform to give voice to political causes that are close to them.
Age is a massive driver of opinion on the issue. Millennials – the youngest demographic we polled – are more inclined to follow the NFL than the CFL. They are also more inclined to tip their hats to athletes who use their public platforms to take a stand for political causes they believe in; 69 per cent of millennials say this is okay. The older Canadians are, the less likely they are to see the propriety and importance of such behaviour.
A different line – one that cuts across age demographics – is drawn under the question of sitting for the national anthem. In that same poll, only one in four Canadians support athletes sitting or kneeling while O Canada or The Star-Spangled Banner is sung. Here, even the youngest respondents aren't on side. Though they are more likely to support such a gesture, the majority – 60 per cent – are more likely to see it as inappropriate, or annoying. The older Canadians get, the more hardened that view becomes.
Why? Canadians do take their anthem seriously. But it is also worth noting the data was collected long before Mr. Kaepernick's actions became a league-wide phenomenon when Mr. Trump's Alabama speech inflamed an already smouldering situation.
And then there are the divisive politics of what used to be banal White House trips from championship teams. What started with the Golden State Warriors basketball players saying they'd meet as a team to decide on making a ceremonial visit, ended with the President revoking the team's invitation on Twitter.
Although Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins accepted the invitation to visit the White House, our research shows that Canadians would have supported Sid the Kid had he hypothetically declined.
Canadians are almost twice as likely to say skipping a White House visit is a positive statement than say the same about kneeling during the anthem. This, however, may say more about the President's deep unpopularity in Canada than anything else.
Between the international composition of teams, and the lack of African-American players in the NHL, the Penguins' acceptance of the President's invitation will likely remain. But that won't stand in the way of continued conversations about these issues, in locker rooms, in boardrooms, and in living rooms on both sides of the border.