Race, social justice positions divide Americans on sports issues

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The U.S. has experienced intense political polarization in recent years, and even the world of sports hasn’t been immune. Now, a new study reports that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Researchers from The Ohio State University conclude that Americans’ opinions on sports issues have a connection to their race, ethnicity, and political allegiances. Moreover, opinions unrelated to sports, such as their feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement, generally sync up with someone’s sports-related beliefs.

This research focused on two topics: whether or not college athletes should receive a salary and if it is acceptable for pro athletes to kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice.

Perhaps predictably, there’s still a whole lot of disagreement among Americans when it comes to the subject of kneeling during the national anthem. Researchers uncovered an 82-percent difference (ranging from 13-95%) regarding whether or not people support athletes kneeling depending on combinations of beliefs in reference to race, political orientation, voting intentions, and Black Lives Matter.

“Sports are and have increasingly become a central part of the culture wars,” says Chris Knoester, co-author of the study and an associate professor of sociology, in a university release. “Sports are not a neutral ground.”

Have sports always been political?

While politics in sports may seem like a new development, study co-author Rachel Allison, associate professor of sociology at Mississippi State University, says that isn’t the case.

“We like to think that sport is all about fun and entertainment, what we like to do or watch outside of our ‘real’ lives at work or in our families, and so in a sphere somehow outside of politics,” she explains. “But the history of sport shows that it has never been outside of the political. Our study shows that continues to be the case.”

The team used data originally collected as part of the Taking America’s Pulse 2016 Class Survey to facilitate these findings. In all, researchers looked at the opinions of 1,461 Americans.

According to the analysis, white Americans are “particularly likely” to oppose paying college athletes (69%) and kneeling in protest (73%). Conversely, Black Americans are much more likely to support both paying student athletes and protesting during the national anthem. Only 29 percent and 32 percent of surveyed African Americans, respectively, opposed to paying college athletes and kneeling protests. Study authors add Latinos and other ethnicities in the survey were also generally more supportive of these actions than Caucasians, albeit not as supportive as African Americans.

“In large part, we think these racial and ethnic differences occur because paying college athletes and allowing protests during the national anthem are frequently seen as antiracist actions particularly supporting Black athletes,” Prof. Knoester adds.

American sports views mirror their world view

Participants also weighed in on issues totally outside the realm of sports. Interestingly, responses regarding those topics still lined up with sports views. The Ohio State team asked Americans about educational opportunities and equality among white, Latino, and Black students, as well as their overall views on the BLM movement.

Sure enough, the results show a strong link to each person’s sports-related views. For example, white adults who oppose BLM and believe Latino or Black students get more educational advantages had a 75-percent chance of opposing payments to college athletes. They also had an 85-percent probability of being against national anthem protests. On the other hand, Black adults believing that Caucasian students get more advantages and support BLM only had a 28-percent probability of being against paying college athletes and a 21-percent chance of opposing athletes kneeling during the national anthem.

Additionally, both self-identifying as a conservative and intending to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election strongly correlated with disliking athlete payments and protests. Liberals and those planning on voting for Hillary Clinton were more supportive of both topics.

“We found that race, ethnicity and political beliefs all were linked to views about these two sports issues,” notes study co-author David Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University. “While political views were important, they did not completely erase the effects of people’s race and ethnicity.”

Moderates still take a side

Even white Americans who saw themselves as “middle of the road” politically still had a 66-percent chance of opposing the paying of student athletes. In comparison, Black Americans with the same middle of the road politics were only 35 percent likely to oppose such payments.

Combining all of these factors creates a much clearer image of “solidified opposition or support” on these topics. For example, a very liberal African American voting for Hillary Clinton, supports BLM, and believes that white students receive more opportunities, is only 13 percent likely to oppose both the payment of college athletes and national anthem protests.

On the other end of the spectrum, an extremely conservative white American who intended to vote for Donald Trump, doesn’t believe white students receive more opportunities, and believes BLM “inappropriately values Black lives” is 95 percent likely to oppose both the payment of college athletes and kneeling protests.

“Racial and political issues are a part of society, so they will be a part of sports,” Prof. Knoester concludes

The study appears in the journal Du Bois Review.

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