Trump effect hits the NFL -- Teams with more protesters were more likely to lose

Sunday brought a lot of controversy, with numerous NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.  But it was also an interesting day for football, with a lot of big upsets.  And President Trump may have played a role.  The teams with the most players kneeling or sitting during the anthem were more likely to lose.  This also includes teams that stayed in their locker rooms.

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, file photo, the Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, center, take a knee prior to the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz. What began more than a year ago with a lone NFL quarterback protesting police brutality against minorities by kneeling silently during the national anthem before games has grown into a roar with hundreds of players sitting, kneeling, locking arms or remaining in locker rooms, their reasons for demonstrating as varied as their methods. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

The Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, center, take a knee prior to the national anthem  (AP Photo/Matt York)

Trump’s tweets sure got the NFL’s attention.  "If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!" Trump wrote.  NFL owners were rather upset at Trump for urging fans to boycott protesting teams.  The players also knew what was at stake.  

Sep 24, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Recording artist Meghan Linsey kneels after singing the national anthem before the game between the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports - 10305030

Recording artist Meghan Linsey kneels agter singing the national anthem  (USA Today)

What happened, though, is that many of the teams that were supposed to win on Sunday ended up losing.  Maybe it was the Trump effect. Talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 23 to 17 loss to the Chicago Bears, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger acknowledged the turmoil over the protests.  When asked if it had an impact on his team losing, Roethlisberger said, “probably be lying if I said no.”

Data I collected on the number of players protesting for each team on Sunday shows that it wasn’t just the Steelers that were affected.  The impact was large and statistically significant.

The Las Vegas odds makers thought that the Miami Dolphins would demolish the New York Jets.  Football experts at USA Today predicted, “The Jets are terrible” and “[the Dolphins] will have no problem covering this on.”  Instead, the Jets bested the Dolphins by 14 points. 

Jugadores de los Ravens de Baltimore, entre ellos el retirado linebacker Ray Lewis (segunda a la derecha) se arrodillan durante la interpretación del himno nacional previo al partido contra los Jaguars de Jacksonville en Londres, el domingo 24 de septiembre de 2017. (AP Foto/Matt Dunham)

Thirteen Baltimore Ravens players kneel as the US National Anthem  (AP)

The Baltimore Ravens were supposed to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Again, USA Today experts predicted, “Ravens defense will have its way with Blake Bortles” and “Not betting on Bortles against a Ravens defense that just might be the best in the league.”  But the Jaguars demolished the Ravens by 37 points.  So much for the Ravens’ powerful defense, which gave up 44 points.

The Oakland Raiders were supposed to beat the Washington Redskins.  You get the pattern: “The Raiders will blow past them.”  Instead, the Redskins won by an impressive 17 points.

Sep 24, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins president Bruce  Allen (L) stands with Redskins players arm in arm during the national anthem prior to their game against the Oakland Raiders at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports - 10305314

Washington Redskins president Bruce Allen (L) stands with Redskins players arm in arm during the national anthem  (USA Today)

And so on.  It’s very unusual for the predictions to be so off.  During the first two weeks of the season, the point spreads (the amount that they expected a team to win by) were right 67 percent of the time.  In the third week, they were right only half of the time.

In five of the seven surprise results, the winning team had fewer players protesting the anthem.

The Jets had no protesting players.  The Dolphins had five. 

The Jaguars had 12 protesters.  Almost the entire Ravens team protested.

Three Redskins players protested. Nearly all of the Oakland Raiders protested.

Across all of the games Sunday, opposing teams differed by an average of 13 protesting players. 

How much did the actual point spread differ from what the odds makers predicted?  We used the odds makers’ predicted point spreads from Thursday, the day before Trump’s first remarks.  (A copy of the data and the regression results are available here.)

The difference between opposing teams in the number of protesting players was closely correlated to the difference between actual and expected scores.  If your team had thirteen more protesting players than did the opposing team — the average difference on Sunday — then your team would be spotting your opponent about one touchdown.

Teams are distracted by turmoil, making it harder for them to concentrate on the games.  As much as it may pain some of the protesting players, Trump’s tweet “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable” seems to bear fruit – teams with locked arms were indeed more likely to win their games on Sunday.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of nine books including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "The War on Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies (August 1, 2016). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.