We examine the 2016–2017 National Football League (NFL) kneeling protests that were performed during the pregame national anthem to draw attention to the problems of police brutality and violence against African Americans. Elaborating the concept of tactical neutralization, we delineate various strategies that opponents used to delegitimize this tactic and strip it of its power, thereby encouraging the athlete-protesters to desist. Drawing on online newspaper accounts of the NFL anthem protests, we use directed content analysis methods to inductively discern these “neutralization strategies,” which included discursive delegitimation of the protesters and their tactics, imposing costs for participation, and cooptation. Through successful relegitimation efforts, these athlete-protesters were able to sustain their tactic, even in the face of widespread opposition. Furthermore, a backfire dynamic was unleashed when a controversial, high profile opponent engaged in these delegitimation efforts, resulting in increased participation and heightened tactical strength.

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