By Steve Keating
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Colin Kaepernick and other protesting players were not to blame for a decline in National Football League television ratings, the head of the NFL Players Association said on Thursday.
Kaepernick, the former-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, sparked a national debate in 2016 when he refused to stand during the U.S. anthem to protest against police shootings of minorities and racial disparities in the justice system.
Other players have opted to 'take a knee' during the anthem ever since, with the protests spreading to other professional sports.
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The protests polarized many in the U.S. with President Donald Trump, who has called for protesting players to be fired or punished, and some pundits linking the controversy to a slide in the league's television ratings.
The NFLPA, however, said on Thursday evidence did not back the claim.
"I think every bit of detailed analysis demonstrates that it is wrong," NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith told reporters ahead of Sunday's Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
"There isn't a television show, a news show that isn't at least experiencing a double digit decline.
"To try to pin declining ratings on any single thing is being intellectually dishonest."
While Kaepernick has not been spotted in Minneapolis during the build up to the Super Bowl his presence has been felt.
Trump raised the issue of standing for the anthem again during his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday while NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been supportive of players rights to protest, discussed it on Wednesday.
The impact of Kaepernick's activism was also on display at the NFLPA's media conference as a video featuring the quarterback and his lone protest that grew into a social movement was broadcast.
A poster with players' hands raised and the caption, "I am an Activist" was also displayed on one side of the room.
Kaepernick's activism, however, has come at a cost.
He has been unemployed this season despite injuries at other teams that have created job openings and pundits have suggested his protest was the key reason teams are wary of signing him.
Last October, he filed a grievance against the NFL accusing the 32 owners of collusion.
Smith, like Goodell, refused to comment on the case but noted the season had been the most rewarding in charge of the NFLPA, as members locked arms and rallied around a cause.
"What you've seen this year, for me personally, is one of most exciting and thrilling and in many ways one of the most rewarding years I've had in this job," said Smith.
"You see a group of men who responded as a team, at times responded with more respect than the respect they were given."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)