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How the NFL Helped America Accept Gay Marriage

Unexpected endorsements by revered athletes can change minds.

By Tom Jacobs


Green Bay Packers cornerback Leroy Butler makes a play in a game during the 1998 season. (Photo: Elsa Hasch/Getty Images)

There were many heroes in the fight for same-sex marriage. When it comes to changing public opinion, some of them were professional football players.

That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which offers a partial explanation as to why support for same-sex marriage shifted so quickly, and so dramatically, over the past two decades. It reports the views of many fans were apparently influenced by the public pronouncements of outspoken NFL players.

“When fans learn — sometimes unexpectedly — that other fans or athletes are supporters of marriage equality, they are motivated to agree,” report political scientists Brian Harrison of Northwestern University and Melissa Michelson of Menlo College.

Getting in line with such beliefs helps to “normalize their membership in those sports-fan groups,” the researchers write in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics.

Harrison and Michelson describe three studies that provide evidence of his dynamic, including one conducted in the weeks leading up to the 2013 Super Bowl. A player on one of the teams that year — linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens — was an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage.

Followers of a sports franchise have a strong incentive to align their views with the players they follow.

The participants — 115 college students in California, 99 university undergraduates in Texas, and 212 American adults recruited online — read one of two versions of a short news item featuring individuals expressing support for gay marriage. One version attributed the pro-equality quotes to Ayanbadejo and two fellow athletes; the other quoted anonymous citizens.

Participants then noted their level of interest in sports, and indicated their views about same-sex marriage.

The key result: Among self-proclaimed sports fans, 49 percent who read the version that did not provide attribution expressed support for a hypothetical state ballot initiative legalizing gay marriage. That number increased to nearly 65 percent among those who were told the quotes came from the professional athletes.

Another study was conducted in 2014 on the streets of Appleton, Wisconsin — Green Bay Packers country. Just over 300 people read a supportive statement from a celebrity in favor of gay marriage. Half were told it was from Packers Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler, while the others were told it represented the views of rapper Jay-Z.

They then reported whether they were a Packers fan, and gave their views about same-sex marriage. About 62 percent of the team’s supporters expressed support after reading the Jay-Z quotes; that number increased to nearly 78 percent if they read the same statement from Butler.

In both studies, the response of non-sports fans did not differ significantly depending upon which version they read.

Since the world of pro sports is not generally thought of as gay-friendly, statements of support for gay rights by players “will be received by most people as unexpected — as a cognitive ‘speed bump,’” the researchers write. “Scholarship on persuasion and priming suggests that this makes those statements particularly powerful.”

Adding to their impact is the fact that “identification with a sports team is enduring and often strong.” Given that fact, followers of a sports franchise have a strong incentive to align their views with the players they follow, and their fellow fans.

So the surprising discovery that prominent members of their tribe support gay marriage produces a strong psychological pull to get in line. Sometimes you need to drop your prejudices to be a good team player.