Do pro sports promote patriotism? Most Americans say no

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Patriotism and pro sports are deeply interconnected in the United States. Most games begin with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and some sprinkle other displays of American lore throughout the contest.  However, do pro sports really teach and convey a genuine love of one’s country? According to new research from The Ohio State University, most Americans don’t think so. Less than half of surveyed U.S. adults (47%) agree with the notion that pro sports promote patriotism.

Conducted prior to the pandemic (2018-2019), the survey also reports that only 34 percent believe pro sports teaches respect for the military. Moreover, just a third agree that pro sports can guide people on how to “be American.”

“The patriotic imagery and messages in sports are so common that many people don’t even recognize it is there,” says lead study author Chris Knoester, associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, in a university release.

Patriotism ‘often not even noticed’ at sporting events

The online poll encompassed 3,993 Americans in total, spread out across all 50 states. The purpose of the research was to determine just how much Americans notice all of the patriotic messaging in pro sports. Apparently, most have become so accustomed to such practices they hardly even register it.

“We have the singing of the national anthem, the giant flag, the military flyovers – it is part of our culture and people accept it as normal – so much so that it is often not even noticed,” notes study co-author Evan Davis, visiting assistant professor of sport management at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. “But can you imagine going to a theater and having everyone stand up before the movie and sing the national anthem? It is really a unique part of sports in the United States.”

Notably, a number of demographics were more likely to agree with the idea that pro sports encourage patriotism. Such groups included Republicans, Christians, and heterosexuals.

“These tend to be groups that have traditionally had high status in the United States, been comfortable with their situations, and therefore have positive feelings about these values,” Prof. Knoester comments. “It makes sense that they are more aware and supportive of these cultural messages in sports.”

However, researchers also note that many historically lower-class demographics such as Black, Latino and high-school educated Americans were actually more likely to agree with the connection between sports and patriotism than White and college-educated Americans. “That may be because sports are seen as more meritocratic than the rest of society and offer more opportunities for advancement in our society for people who are not White and college educated,” Prof. Knoester adds.

Finally, dedicated sports fans were also more likely to agree with the idea that pro sports promotes patriotism, military respect, etc. Study authors theorize such individuals approve of these messages, even if only on a subconscious or silent level, due to their passion as a sports fan.

“Based on our findings, it seems that most Americans do not recognize sport as a social institution that promotes nationalism – although there is good evidence that it does,” Prof. Knoester concludes. “We need to continue to research which cultural messages are promoted through sports, why, and to what effect.”

The study is published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport.

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