December 3, 2020
BY Lance Cartelli

What Do Sports Fans Think of Athletes Who Opted Out?

The NFL season may be underway, but it isn’t business as usual for professional football. Two teams, the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans, have experienced major COVID-19 breakouts, causing nine teams to have to reschedule games through Nov. 22 to accommodate the distancing and quarantine measures enacted by the league. 

And while the NFL has enacted a policy where teams caught violating its COVID-19 protocols might be required to forfeit a game during the 2020-21 season, the rules alone haven’t stopped players, coaches and staff members from becoming infected with the disease. The NFL isn’t alone, either. Prior to the start of the football season, the Miami Marlins experienced a similar outbreak of COVID-19 among players, prompting many to question if sports should be played at all in the midst of a global health pandemic. 

Spectators aren’t the only ones wondering if it’s appropriate to opt-out of sports entirely in 2020. Many players across the NBA, MLB, and NFL have made similar decisions to forgo the season completely for the health and safety of themselves and their families. But how do fans feel about players’ decisions not to play due to COVID-19? To find out, we surveyed over 1,000 sports fans to find out if they support players who choose to opt-out, what the overall perception is of athletes choosing not to play due to COVID-19, and which fans feel the most let down by these players’ decisions. Read on to see what we uncovered about how fans really feel about professional and collegiate athletes opting out due to COVID-19 in 2020.

In a completely abnormal year, the return of live sports has offered fans the first taste of normal life they may have experienced in months. Despite the emotional weight of going without live sports, we found a majority of fans are generally supportive of players who decide to opt-out for various reasons.

Among sports fans, 69% supported athletes deciding to opt-out of the season due to COVID-19, with a majority of those strongly supporting these decisions. Another 18% indicated somewhat supporting opt-out decisions. Just 6% of fans reported either opposing, somewhat opposing, or strongly opposing athletes who made the decision not to play professional or collegiate sports in 2020. 

Strong support for players who opted out was highest among fans of baseball (37%). Followed by 33% of football, basketball and hockey fans. Positive sentiment wasn’t unanimous, though. Compared to 77% of Democrats, just 61% of Republicans indicated they supported athletes who were opting out. 

Fan Sentiment on Opting Out

Among fans, 65% of respondents considered opting out responsible, followed by citing it as an understandable decision (63%) and well-intentioned (48%). Fans of football, however, were the least likely to view players sitting out for the season as well-intentioned. 

Many teams and leagues have made the decision not to play with fans in attendance in 2020, but support for those decisions hasn’t been unanimous, either. While 71% of fans believed it’s responsible for leagues to have resumed play at all, just 51% of fans thought having fans in attendance is also responsible. Forty-one percent of people identifying as Democrats and 71% of Republicans believed it would be responsible for fans to be allowed to attend live sports games in 2020.

Support for Opting Out, by Team

Fans may have been eagerly awaiting the return of sports in 2020, but the NFL’s ratings in the opening weeks of the season have continued to slip. Among those surveyed, fans of certain teams expressed lower positive sentiment toward athletes who chose to opt-out of the season entirely. 

Among fans of the NFL, viewers following the Cleveland Browns (94%) were the most likely to support athletes for opting out during the 2020 season, followed by fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers and Washington Football Team (93% each). Those who identified as fans of the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys (85% each), and Chicago Bears (83%), however, were the least likely to support players deciding not to play due to COVID-19. 

Fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons were the most likely to consider allowing fans to attend live games a responsible decision. Of these teams, only the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills will play the entirety of the season without fans in attendance, while the other teams will allow reduced capacities of spectators. 

Fans of the Power Five NCAA conferences were generally less likely than fans of professional football to be as supportive of opting out. Compared to 89% of fans of the Big 10 and ACC, there was slightly less support among Pac-12 (88%), Big 12 (88%), and SEC (87%) fans.

Making the Decision to Sit the Season Out 

Thirty-eight percent of fans believed athletes have an above-average risk for mortality from COVID-19, followed by 35% who considered their risk average and just 27% of fans who considered athletes at below-average risk. Most commonly, fans indicated opting-out from the 2020 season would benefit athletes’ friends and family (60%), followed closely by the athletes themselves (59%) and the athletes’ teammates (37%). 

Forty-three percent of fans also said their opinion of an athlete would improve if they opted out of the season, compared to 10% who indicated their opinion would be lessened instead. In the NFL, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first player to opt-out of the 2020 season, choosing to continue working as an orderly in a Canadian long-term care facility rather than return to playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Most fans believed players have been opting out of professional or collegiate sports to protect those close to them (67%), others felt their social responsibility (58%) or excessive fear (48%) made them sit out the season. Despite the motives for their decisions, 77% of fans also agreed opting out of the season would have negative consequences for the players, including hurting their careers (51%), letting fans down (47%) and decreasing fan enthusiasm (41%). Those surveyed were more likely to indicate opting out would negatively impact fans (55%) over a player’s teammates (48%) or a stadium’s staff and vendors (47%). 

The Impact of Opting Out

Forty-four percent of fans have had a player on a team they support opt-out of the season, though another 33% were unsure if their teams had been impacted. Thirty percent of fans said players opting out would definitely hurt their chances of success during the season, and another 55% were convinced it would most likely hurt their chances of success. 

Fans of baseball (57%) were the most likely to believe players opting out would definitely hurt their team’s chances of success during the season, followed by basketball (55%) and football fans (54%). In the NFL, a total of 66 players opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including players from all but three teams: the Steelers, Falcons and Chargers. While 27% of fans said they didn’t feel at all let down by the decision of an athlete not to play during the pandemic, an equal percentage of fans said they were moderately disappointed and 14% of fans felt very let down by those opting out. Fans of hockey (16%) were the most likely to indicate being very let down by players opting out. 

When players who’ve opted out of the season return, 59% of fans said they would be more or much more excited to support them, and 53% will be more or much more of a fan. Just 6% of sports fans said they will be either less or much less excited to root for players after they return from opting out.

Keeping Up With Sports News

Many fans are excited to have sports back, even if things don’t look exactly the way they’re used to. In addition to amended schedules or playing in “bubbles” to avoid the spread of COVID-19, some players from across the leagues have opted to sit the season out entirely. While a majority of fans respect the decision players have made to protect their health and safety during the pandemic, a small percentage admitted they opposed the decision and would be less of a fan upon those players’ returns. 

At Lines, we know this season is full of ups and downs, but we’ve got you covered across the sports spectrum. From the NFL and MLB to NBA and NCAA, you can find all of the sports news, fantasy stats, and up-to-date information about your teams in one place. For breaking news and player updates, visit today!

Methodology and Limitations

We surveyed 1,007 regular viewers of professional and college football, basketball, baseball, and hockey using the Amazon MTurk survey platform. 308 respondents watched hockey, 523 watched baseball, 597 watched basketball, and 852 watched football. Our average respondent was approximately 39 years old. 

To help ensure accurate data, respondents were required to identify and correctly answer an attention-check question. In many cases, questions and responses were rephrased for brevity or clarity. These data rely on self-reporting, which can be subject to issues such as exaggeration and recency bias.

Fair Use Statement

How are sports fans adapting to the new normal? Share the results of this study with your readers for any noncommercial use by including a link back to this page in your story as credit to our writers and designers for their work.