While her decision gained a mix of support and opposition offline, U.S. Olympian Gwen Berry’s protest of the American flag during an Olympic trials ceremony late last month has proven unpopular on Facebook, where posts criticizing the hammer thrower dominated the typically conservative-leaning site over the past week.
Data from CrowdTangle, an analytics tool owned by Facebook, shows four of the top 10 most popular link-based posts on the site since June 27 were about the protest, with three from prominent conservatives explicitly criticizing Berry for what she described as a demonstration against systemic racism.
At over 300,000 reactions, the second most popular post in this category over the past week was right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro sharing an article from his news site, The Daily Wire, about two Republican lawmakers—Rep. Dan Crenshaw (Tex.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (Ariz.)—calling on the U.S. Olympic team to remove Berry.
The fourth top post featured a similar message from evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who consistently ranks among Facebook’s most popular conservatives.
“If you’re competing in the Olympics to represent the USA and you disrespect our country by disrespecting the flag or our national anthem, that should automatically disqualify you from the team,” Graham wrote to more than 140,000 reactions, 47,000 comments and 21,000 shares.
Another post unloading criticism on Berry from Fox News host and popular podcaster Dan Bongino also secured a top 10 spot on Facebook this week.
“If you hate America, why are you representing us at the Olympics? Go home.” Bongino wrote in a June 20 post to over 156,000 reactions, 22,900 comments and 11,500 shares.
After placing third in the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, on June 26, Berry turned away from the American flag as the “Star Spangled Banner” played during the podium ceremony. She also draped over her head a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Activist Athlete.” The Olympian later claimed she was “set up” on the podium as she was told the national anthem would be playing earlier than it did, and has defended her actions, saying she “never said” she “hated the country.”
“My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” Berry said. “I’m here to represent those … who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. That’s why I’m here today.”
Though it may appear a one-sided issue on Facebook, Berry’s protest also inspired widespread praise. Other Black track and field athletes, including fellow 2020 Olympians Teahna Daniels and Will Claye, offered encouragement after the protest. “I hope one day the people of this country understand that everything you’re doing is for the LOVE of your people, not because you HATE this country,” wrote Claye, who competes in the long jump and triple jump. Former world record-holding sprinter Michael Johnson also praised Berry for her “courage” in “standing up for beliefs” knowing the backlash she would face. Berry’s protest is the latest in a long history of Black athletes using major sporting events to draw attention to issues of racial injustice. These demonstrations, like the infamous kneeling of former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick during the national anthem at the start of a 2016 NFL game, often receive polarizing reactions and have in some instances ended in negative professional repercussions for the athletes (Kaepernick has remained unsigned by any professional football team since the protest).
The Biden administration defended Berry’s right to “peacefully protest” amid the backlash. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press conference this week that President Biden would admit that “part of the pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we, as a country, haven’t lived up to our highest ideals.”
What To Watch For
Berry has not said whether she plans to protest again if she makes it to the podium at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics Games. “It depends on how I’m feeling,” Berry told CNN’s Don Lemon on Thursday. “It depends on what I want to do in that moment, and what I want to do for my people in that moment.” While certain racial and social justice demonstrations were allowed at the trials, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has upheld a ban known as Rule 50 that will prevent athletes from protesting or demonstrating at the competition in Japan. It’s unclear what would happen if Berry were to break the rule as the IOC says in its guidelines that “disciplinary action will be taken on a case-by-case basis as necessary.”