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SportsPulse: USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick looks at how the political, social and racial divisions in America have manifested themselves in sports, and how it might be the only platform that can bring people together.
USA TODAY Sports

Here’s another strategy for morning-after quarterbacks to ponder: Are NFL players’ kneeling protests hurting TV ratings and even, perhaps, driving down TV stocks?

The answer is likely to be as hotly contested as an NFL line of scrimmage. NFL ratings are down for the just-started season, just as they were last season, and the stocks of the major networks that have broadcast NFL games are falling, too. President Trump has linked the NFL’s ratings, which he called “massively, massively” down, and players kneeling during the anthem, suggesting they were turning fans away.

The explanation for why the league’s ratings are down is far more complicated. For a start, ratings for a variety of sports broadcasts have declined. NASCAR and the NBA have also drawn fewer TV viewers — likely influenced by huge shifts in the way fans watch sports and by other factors that may have drawn their attention away, from hurricanes to last year’s drama-packed presidential election.

Before Trump’s remarks on the NFL and his exhortation last weekend that fans boycott games if players didn’t stand during the anthem, fans may have already tuned out in sympathy with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who says he used the spotlight to protest oppression of black people by the criminal justice system. Others may have backed away because they disagreed with Kaepernick’s actions, as Trump suggests. And still others may have dropped the NFL for a totally separate reason: because of mounting evidence that many players have suffered severe brain disease, TV analysts say.

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Ratings, stocks down

What’s not disputed is that NFL ratings were down about 10% for the first three weeks of the season, which started Sept. 7, with about 15.8 million viewers (watching live or on DVR same-day), compared to 17.6 million during the first three weeks of 2016, according to Nielsen data. That follows a trend last year of…