Whenever President Trump sets off a new controversy, there's always a period of hair-on-fire commentary, usually conducted in the absence of polls or other evidence of public opinion. It's happened again and again, the latest example being the president, the NFL, and the national anthem.
Trump set things off Sept. 22 during a speech in Alabama. Now, after more than a week, there are five new polls with information on the underlying issue — NFL players protesting during the national anthem — and Trump's treatment of it.
On the protests, the short version is, the public, which disapproved when Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the anthem last year, still disapproves.
A new CBS poll asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of football players protesting by kneeling during the national anthem?" Fifty-two percent said they strongly or somewhat disapprove, while 38 percent said they strongly or somewhat approve, and nine percent said they haven't heard enough to say.
The disapprove-approve numbers were 51-39 in a new ESPN poll.
Fox News asked, "In general, do you think kneeling during the national anthem is an appropriate — or inappropriate — form of protest?" Fifty-five percent said inappropriate, while 41 percent said appropriate, and five percent didn't know.
CNN asked the question in a slightly roundabout way, asking "Do you think athletes who protest by kneeling during the national anthem are doing the right thing or the wrong thing to express their political opinion? Forty-nine percent said the wrong thing, 43 percent said the right thing, and eight percent didn't know.
Finally, the Huffington Post found a lot of indecisive respondents when it asked, "Do you think it's appropriate or inappropriate for NFL players to kneel in protest during the national anthem?" Forty-eight percent said inappropriate, 36 percent said appropriate, and a full 16 percent said they weren't sure.
The CBS poll shed some additional light on the public's attitude toward the demonstrations when it asked, "Do you think professional athletes should or should not use their position and fame to talk politics or raise issues, if they want to?" The poll gave respondents three choices: "Yes, whenever they want to," "Yes, but only on their own time," and "No, they should not."
A decisive 68 percent said athletes either should get political on their own time or not at all. (The breakdown of that was 41 percent said athletes should do it on their own time, and 27 percent said they shouldn't do it at all. Just 32 percent said athletes could get political whenever they want to.)
Given the racial dimension of the controversy, the poll broke things down further by race. Forty-six percent of blacks said athletes should get political on their own time or not at all, 64 percent of Hispanics said the same, 58 percent of other races/ethnicities agreed, and 75 percent of whites agreed. Blacks were the only group that said, by a 54 percent majority, that athletes should get political whenever they want.
The bottom line is that in most polls, small majorities oppose the national anthem protests. But in a broader sense, a much larger majority opposes athletes using the field of competition to play politics.
Why is the majority generally opposing political activity on the field larger than the majority specifically opposing the anthem protests? Just a theory here — it could be that the former is a true measure of opinion on sports protests, while the latter is associated with Trump, which means measures of opinion about the anthem protests are comingled with respondents' opinions about the president.
Which leads to the polls' findings about Trump. CBS asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of Donald Trump's recent comments about football players who protest during the national anthem?" Forty-eight percent strongly or somewhat disapproved, while 38 percent strongly or somewhat approved, and 14 percent did not know.
The numbers were 58 percent disapprove, 36 percent approve in the ESPN poll, which did not provide the wording of the question. The Fox poll did not specifically ask about Trump and the NFL.
CNN asked, "Do you think Donald Trump did the right thing or the wrong thing by criticizing athletes from the National Football League who have protested by kneeling during the national anthem?" Sixty percent said Trump did the wrong thing, while 34 percent said he did the right thing and six percent didn't know.
Huffington Post asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of President Trump's response to the NFL protests?" Fifty-four percent strongly or somewhat disapproved, while 36 percent strongly or somewhat approved, and 10 percent weren't sure.
What does it all mean? First, most Americans disapprove of the protests. That's a continuing problem, at the very least, for the NFL. (The CNN poll found that 24 percent of those surveyed "plan to boycott NFL games, broadcasts or products" as a result of the protests.)
But at the same time, a majority don't want the president inserting himself into the issue. That's entirely consistent with other polls, going back months, that have shown majorities of Americans wishing Trump would stop tweeting, especially about inflammatory issues. Even those Americans who support the president would still like to see him concentrate his public statements on issues like taxes, economic growth, healthcare, immigration, North Korea, and other critical matters.
But Trump has never shown any inclination to do that. And on the NFL protest question, if the new polls are correct, he's on the same side as most Americans. At the same time, he'd probably be in a stronger position if he didn't say it.
UPDATE: After this was posted, USA Today/Suffolk released a new poll with results that differed from earlier surveys, finding that 51 percent of respondents said the NFL protests are appropriate, while 42 percent said they are not. But the USA Today/Suffolk question was written in a way that specifically framed the protest as a stand against police brutality and racial injustice -- wording that arguably was likely to produce a more pro-player response. The question: "Some NFL players have dropped to one knee during the playing of the national anthem, as a protest bringing attention to police brutality and racial injustice. In your opinion, is it appropriate for players to engage in this sort of protest before an NFL game -- yes or no?"