In journalism, there are few things less enlightening than combining mushy, vaguely sourced stats with a clicktastic headline. And if you don't believe me, you only need to read the Sports Illustrated piece entitled "The Colin Kaepernick Effect: CBS Study Says Protests Were Factor in NFL Ratings Decline."
Wow, that sounds definitive, doesn't it? Except as you read the story, you realize that none of the actual details are all that clear.
The story is built around comments made on Wednesday by CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. During the network's annual NFL media day, McManus cited some mysterious "proprietary" research, which suggested that the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest might have led to some hard-to-define dip in last season's ratings:
"We did research and it was relatively proprietary research, to be honest with you," McManus said. “But I think if you look at some of the reasons why NFL viewership was down last year, that is a reason that’s mentioned by a fair amount of viewers. It is something they don’t find attractive or they find don’t compelling in coverage of the football game. How big a factor it was? I don’t really know. But it was one of the factors that I think perhaps led to the slight decrease in ratings last year."
Now the average ratings for NFL games in 2016 dipped about 8 percent from 2015 levels. And even McManus doesn't seem to think the controversy had a large impact on the ratings. In fact, the Sports Illustrated piece also quotes Fox Sports executive vice president Mike Mulvihill, who argues the protests had no impact on ratings.
Of course, none of these disclaimers were enough to keep Sports Illustrated from using a headline that was guaranteed to get attention. Even if it was not exactly accurate.