January 6, 2021
BY Lance Cartelli

Players vs Politics: Does 'Stick to Sports' Still Exist?

For professional athletes and the leagues they play in, the road to political activism, in uniform or out, has been as complicated as it’s been controversial. 

The NFL brought the conversation to a boiling point when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem for the first time as a sign of silent protest. In the years that followed, the NFL attempted to institute a 2018 policy demanding players “show respect” to the flag and reversed that position in 2020 with an apology from commissioner Roger Goodell that the league was wrong for its approach to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The NFL isn’t the only league to have leaned into political activism in 2020. In the NBA, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was painted on the court during live games. In the NHL, players began kneeling during the national anthem and speaking out against racism. The NFL went one step further and allowed players to vote on different social justice statements that would appear in the end zone throughout the season. In the MLB, players were provided Black Lives Matter shirts and given the option to wear a patch on their uniforms throughout the game. 

But while many players have made clear what they believe in  — and their right to communicate those political opinions while they’re playing — fans haven’t always agreed. For a closer look at the boundaries between sports, journalism and politics, we surveyed over 1,000 sports fans for their perspective. We investigate how fans feel about athletes discussing politics publicly; which political topics they’re most comfortable with; how they feel about kneeling during the anthem or players striking; and which team fan bases are the most supportive of public political discussion from players. 

A Political Perspective in Sports Journalism

2020 hasn’t just been a year where athletes themselves have abandoned the “stick to sports” methodology. In recent months, ESPN and its rival publications have also adopted an air of political commentary, a far cry from 2017 when ESPN publicly condemned then-staffer Jemele Hill who criticized Donald Trump on her personal Twitter profile. 

Among fans, 67% believed political commentary is acceptable from sports journalists, while 17% considered it unacceptable, and 16% were unsure. Overall, Democrats surveyed were seven percentage points more likely than Republicans to support sports journalists for taking a political tone in their commentary. 

The most agreeable political conversations were around voting (72%), voting rights (70%) and the Black Lives Matter movement (67%). Democrats (77%) were far more likely than Republicans (59%) to identify as being tolerant on some level to sports journalists discussing Black Lives Matter. Opinions on the president (62%) and the legalization of marijuana (59%) in sports journalism had the least support among fans, with opinions on the president being the least tolerant subject among Republican respondents.

How Players Talk About Politics

When it comes to professional athletes, sports fans were more comfortable with public, political declarations than they were with political conversation from sports journalists. Seventy-three percent of respondents indicated it was acceptable for athletes to speak openly on political topics, followed by 12% who said it was unacceptable and 15% who were unsure. 

The most tolerant political topics were voting (74%), voting rights (73%), and Black Lives Matter (71%). While a majority of respondents were comfortable with all of the topics in question, we found opinions on the president (65%) and the legalization of marijuana (61%) were still the most controversial. 

Republicans were consistently less likely to indicate comfort with any of the political topics from athletes in question. The least acceptable topics for Republicans included athletes discussing police brutality (57%) or the legalization of marijuana (54%). Compared to just 61% of Republicans, 80% of Democrats polled indicated some support for athletes discussing Black Lives Matter.

Tuning Out and Turning Off the Game

Viewership for professional sports has decreased in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leading many analysts to question whether social justice and political commentary have turned some fans off entirely. 

On average, 47% of those polled admitted to turning off a sports game because of a political statement from the players themselves. Among these, 70% of Republicans reported boycotting a game, followed by 35% of Democrats. Only slightly less common, 45% of those polled (including 65% of Republicans and 36% of Democrats) also reported having stopped supporting their favorite sports teams as a result of political commentary from athletes. 

For fans, some instances of political activism were more acceptable than others. We found the most support for moments of silence for Black Lives Matter during games (66%), social justice messages on NBA jerseys (64%) and athletes participating in political protest during events (61%). And while 76% of Republicans agreed sports should be free of political partisanship and debate, they were the least supportive of players interrupting regular-season games to bring attention to racism or social injustice (50%) or players striking for the same causes (53%).

Opinions on Kneeling During the Anthem

On the topic of kneeling during the national anthem or of players striking, a majority of respondents indicated it was the fans themselves who should be entitled to weigh in on these political actions. 

In addition to fans (74%), respondents indicated that the head coach (72%), team owner (67%) and media (66%) were the most qualified to comment on athletes who kneel or strike during games. While respondents were less unanimous on politicians themselves weighing in, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to suggest the president (73%), members of Congress (66%), or governors (63%) should be able to comment on the decisions athletes make.

Cheering on Political Discourse

Among fans of the NFL and NBA, there are varying degrees of support for players who chose to speak out publicly on political issues. While fans of some teams were less supportive than others, the overall sentiment by a majority of respondents was the athletes should be allowed to talk about politics in public forums.

Fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars (83%), Pittsburgh Steelers (82%), San Francisco 49ers (81%) and Cincinnati Bengals (81%) were the most supportive of NFL professional athletes discussing politics. In contrast, fans of the Dallas Cowboys (73%), Arizona Cardinals (72%), and Indianapolis Colts (72%) were the least supportive, on average.

For the NBA, fans of the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies (83% each) had the most positive perspective on athletes discussing politics. Fans of the Brooklyn Nets (73%), Chicago Bulls (73%), and Utah Jazz (72%) were the least likely to indicate players should be allowed to engage in political discourse publicly.

Changing the Conversation

When it comes to professional sports in 2020, few athletes seem content to “shut up and dribble,” and many leagues have created opportunities for players to discuss a range of political topics from police violence and Black Lives Matter to voting and voters’ rights. And while many fans indicated they support athletes’ rights to talk publicly about politics, we found more than 2 in 5 have boycotted games for political reasons or stopped rooting for their favorite teams altogether. 

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Methodology and Limitations

We collected responses from 1,032 fans using Amazon Mechanical Turk. To qualify for the survey, respondents had to indicate that they were fans of the NBA and NFL. Of the 1,032 fans surveyed, 38% were female, 61% were male, and less than 1% identified as nonbinary. Additionally, respondents ranged in age from 24 to 62 with an average of 37 and a standard deviation of 10 years.

The main limitation of this study is the reliance on self-report, which is faced with several issues such as, but not limited to, the following: attribution, exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping. Data are solely representative of self-reported claims by fans, and no association with teams, venues, or cities should be inferred. 

Fair Use Statement

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