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.
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.
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.
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.
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.