Poll: Americans favor athletes speaking out ... just not on the field

Jay Busbee
·6 min read

A majority of Americans are fine with pro athletes speaking their mind on social justice issues ... as long as they do it away from the field.

That’s the broad conclusion of a new poll from Yahoo News and YouGov surveying a broad cross-section of Americans. The responses generally broke down along expected lines, with Republican respondents generally opposing activism and Democratic respondents generally favoring it. However, nearly half of all respondents noted that their attitudes to ongoing protests and demonstrations have changed over the course of the past five years.

Change in acceptance of protests in sports

Colin Kaepernick kicked off the modern protest era in the NFL when he began kneeling in 2016. Since then, almost half of the poll’s respondents — 49 percent — noted that their attitudes toward protesting during sporting events changed over that time.

One-fifth of all respondents, 20 percent, noted they have become more accepting of protests over the past five years. However, 29 percent indicated they have become less accepting. The largest percentage, 42 percent, said their attitudes had not changed. (The final 9 percent were unsure.)

The largest divergence here came along party lines. One-third of Democratic respondents said they had become more accepting of protests, while only 10 percent of Republican respondents said the same. On the other side of the coin, 6 percent of Democratic respondents said they were less tolerant of protests now, while 57 percent of Republican respondents were less accepting now as compared to five years ago.

Members of the New York Giants kneel before a game. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Members of the New York Giants kneel before a game. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Changes in viewing habits due to protests during sports

Nearly half of all respondents, 48 percent, indicated that the protests had altered their viewing habits. Only 12 percent of viewers said they were more likely to watch sports, while 36 percent were less likely. Another 45 percent indicated the protests had not changed their tendency toward watching sports.

Again, this broke down sharply along partisan lines, with 67 percent of Republican respondents saying they were less likely to watch sports as a result of protests, while 64 percent of Democratic respondents saying the protests had no impact on their viewing.

Perspectives on athletes speaking out

Athletes are spending more of their time in interviews and postgame media conferences discussing social issues, and a majority of Americans are fine with that. Sixty-one percent of respondents approve of athletes speaking out to the media about social injustice, by far the largest approval of any form of protest. Twenty-four percent of respondents did not approve.

This question showed stark generational differences; 73 percent of respondents under 30 approved of athletes using their voices for social issues, while 49 percent of respondents 65 and over did. Only 13 percent of under-30 respondents disapproved of athletes not sticking to sports, while 38 percent of 65-and-over respondents disapproved.

Notably, 89 percent of Black respondents approved of athletes speaking out, with only 3 percent disapproving of athletes using their platforms in support of social justice.

Messages on uniforms

The NBA stitched messages of support and unity onto the backs of players’ uniforms, while the NFL is permitting teams to place the names of victims of police violence on their helmets. Respondents were almost evenly split on whether they approved of this method of protest, with 41 percent approving and 42 percent disapproving; 17 percent were uncertain.

This question divided party lines, with 71 percent of Democrats in favor of messaging on uniforms, and 78 percent of Republicans opposing the slogans and names.

Kneeling/protesting during national anthem

Americans remain sharply divided on whether kneeling during the anthem is an appropriate form of protest. Forty-five percent approve of kneeling during the anthem, while 41 percent disapprove, with 13 percent opting not to answer.

Approval of kneeling during the anthem correlates to age, with younger, Black, Democratic, urban and suburban respondents largely approving somewhat or strongly. On the other hand, older, White, Republican rural respondents somewhat disapproved of kneeling.

It is worth noting that this question divides Americans more than any other; nearly 40 percent of older Americans approve of kneeling, for instance. The strongest correlation comes along racial and party lines, with Blacks and Democrats far more likely to approve of kneeling than Whites and Republicans.

Playing the national anthem and ‘Lift Every Voice’ prior to games

One way to avert protest during the national anthem would be to simply stop playing the national anthem. However, that wouldn’t sit well with a majority of the Yahoo News poll’s respondents.

More than half — 55 percent — of respondents favor continuing to play the national anthem. Only 10 percent would like the anthem discontinued entirely, while 35 percent were indifferent. One notable divergence here: 64 percent of White Americans favored the continuation of the national anthem prior to games, while only 27 percent of Black respondents did.

Along similar lines, the NFL played “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” known colloquially as the Black national anthem, prior to Week 1’s games. The gesture didn’t resonate with the public; the largest bloc — 40 percent of respondents — neither favored nor opposed the anthem’s playing. Only 24 percent of respondents favored the playing of “Lift Every Voice,” while 36 percent opposed.

Worth noting, in the context of discussion about the NFL’s declining television ratings: only 18 percent of respondents said the NFL is “one of my top interests.” Another 18 percent apiece proclaimed themselves “somewhat interested” or “a little bit interested” in the NFL, with 46 percent having no interest at all.

NFL broadcasters and ratings analysts have suggested that the decline in NFL ratings is due to the loss of casual fans. Given that only 36 percent of Americans have more than scant interest in the NFL, this poll would add some weight to the “casual fans” theory.

Methodology: The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,539 U.S. adult residents interviewed online between Sept. 15-17, 2020, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education, based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S residents.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee and contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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