Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos, third from left, stands with his team during the national anthem before their NFL home game against the Kansas City Chiefs. (Paul Buck/European Pressphoto Agency-EFE)

In the past 10 days, President Trump’s comments about three prominent African American sports figures has made the sports world a racially charged political battleground.

President Trump’s harshest words were directed at NFL players who’ve protested racial injustice in America by taking a knee during the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’” Trump said at a political rally in Alabama on Friday.

He then tweeted on Saturday, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the national anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

The NFL’s backlash against President Trump was swift. Commissioner Roger Goodell responded on Saturday by saying, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.” Several owners and team executives issued statements supporting their players’ right to protest peacefully. On Sunday, scores of players knelt during the national anthem or linked arms to display their solidarity with those who did.

Not everyone in the league was so quick to criticize. As Marissa Payne reported here at The Washington Post on Sunday, on Saturday there were no comments from the eight team owners known to have donated a combined $7.25 million to Trump’s inaugural festivities. Those eight are New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Edward Glazer and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke.

For some, that changed on Sunday. Kraft was the first Trump owner/friend to criticize the president, saying he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday.” Snyder and Khan linked arms with their respective players as some knelt during the national anthem, and the Washington Redskins issued a statement of pride in their players that did not explicitly comment on the controversy. But until Kraft’s statement the notable silence from Trump-donor-owners on Saturday raised eyebrows.

Another fact about these owners may raise some eyebrows.

NFL owners who donated to Trump have fewer black executives than other teams

As you can see in the figure below, the owners who donated to Trump have consistently had fewer black executives — general managers and vice presidents — than teams whose owners did not donate to the president’s inaugural committee. That has been true since at least 2014, the last time an NFL franchise (the Buffalo Bills) was sold.


Data on NFL general managers and vice presidents is from UCF/TIDES’s The National Football League Racial & Gender Report Cards, 2014-2016. (Graph by Michael Tesler)

Averaging across the past three seasons, the left-hand display shows that owners who didn’t give money to Trump were around 2.5 times as likely to have a black general manager or vice president as Trump-donating owners over the past three seasons. As the right-hand display further shows, owners who did not donate to Trump have had, on average, about three times as many black executives per team as Trump-donor owners.

There’s a bit of evidence that NFL teams with Trump-donating owners have also had fewer black players on their rosters in recent years. According to my analysis of Best Tickets’ Unofficial 2014 NFL Player Census, 68.8 percent of players on teams belonging to non-Trump-donor owners were black, compared with 64.5 percent on teams with Trump-supporting owners. That’s a modest difference, but unlikely random. I have found no publicly available data on the racial composition of NFL rosters in 2015 and 2016, so it remains to be seen whether that marginally statistically significant difference has persisted for the past two years.

The findings for black executives also come with several caveats. It is difficult to draw any strong inferences from such small samples of both NFL owners and of black executives. It’s unlikely that the paucity of African American executives on Trump-donating teams is simply random variation, but the small samples make it hard to say anything beyond that. My simple analyses cannot offer much insight as to why there are fewer black executives on Trump-supporting teams, let alone speak to whether these owners are discriminating.

Nevertheless, these results are reminiscent of several studies showing that racial prejudice was strongly linked to support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Racial attitudes mattered more in electing Trump than they did in Obama’s elections, and they almost certainly mattered more than they would have if Hillary Clinton had faced a more conventional Republican opponent.

At a minimum, it’s plausible that owners who donated millions of dollars to Trump’s inaugural after he ran a presidential campaign that most Americans said was “racist” and “appealed to bigotry” may not be particularly proactive about racial diversity in their front offices — even in a league where nearly 70 percent of the players are black.

Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era,” and co-author of the forthcoming “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Election and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”