NEW YORK, Sept 9 (Reuters) - The political divide over athlete protests has deepened in the four years since NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Since then, Democrats and Republicans are moving further apart on the issue even as, overall, opinions have not changed drastically with more than half of Americans wanting professional athletes to be required to stand during the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Weeks after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Kaepernick sat out the playing of the anthem prior to a San Francisco 49ers pre season game in August 2016 in protest of racial injustice and knelt for the song in subsequent weeks, prompting a handful of other players across the league to join him.
Asked whether professional athletes should be required to stand during the national anthem at sporting events in a Reuters/Ipsos poll this month, 54% responded "agree" compared to 56% who responded the same in September 2016.
But while the overall national sentiment has remained largely the same, the topic has grown more partisan.
Of those respondents who identify as Democrats, just 33% said they agreed that professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem, compared to 43% in 2016.
Among self-identified Republican respondents, the momentum moved in a different direction: 81% said this month that pro athletes must stand, compared to 73% in 2016.
U.S. President Donald Trump, then the Republican candidate for the White House, was among Kaepernick's most vocal critics when the quarterback took up the protest, and told a radio show in August 2016 that he should "find a country that works better for him." He has maintained his criticism toward athletes who kneel in the years since.
Kaepernick, who entered free agency in March 2017 and subsequently filed a collusion grievance against the NFL after he failed to land with a team, ushered in a new era of athlete activism, with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) both mounting brief strikes last month in protest of police brutality.
The percentage of self-identifying Democrats who responded that professional athletes should be able to express political statements of any kind at sporting events rose to 77% from 60% in 2016, according to Reuters/Ipsos data. The response from Republicans was virtually flat, with 27% answering in the affirmative, compared to 25% four years ago.
The 202 NFL season kicks off on Thursday, as the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs take on the Houston Texans.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online, in English, throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,337 American adults and has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of 3 percentage points. (Reporting by Amy Tennery and Chris Kahn Editing by Alistair Bell)