Many Americans have turned to their favorite sport as a distraction from our troubling and contentious politics. But are athletics actually apolitical?
"Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to follow sports closely," write Emily Thorson of Syracuse University and Michael Serazio of Boston College. "However, sports fandom is positively associated with support for the U.S. military," as well as the conviction that individuals are largely responsible for their financial success or failure.
Their study, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, found this relationship persisted even after taking into account a variety of demographic factors, including the participants' stated partisan leanings. Its findings "suggest that sports culture may reinforce subtle messages about the causes and remedies" of our pressing social problems.
The 1,051 participants completed an online survey in November of 2016. They were asked whether they considered themselves a fan of, or closely followed, "professional or collegiate football, basketball, baseball, or another sport." For each sport they followed, they indicated how often they watched or listened to games, and whether they engaged in six fan-related behaviors, including wearing team clothing.
They also answered questions about their political attitudes, including their endorsement of traditional gender roles, support for the military, and which factors they considered most important to a person's "ability to improve themselves financially and get ahead in life." Strong beliefs in the importance of "ambition, hard work, and good money-management skills" reflected an individualistic mindset.
Altogether, 81 percent of men and 65 percent of women followed at least one sports team. "Football was the most popular sport, with 56 percent identifying as fans, followed by baseball (38 percent) and basketball (26 percent)," the researchers report.
"Basketball fans are more likely than those who do not follow sports to lean Democratic," they write. Otherwise, spectator sports attract people from across the political spectrum pretty much equally.
However, ideological differences emerged when the researchers compared casual fans with real enthusiasts. "Fan intensity is significantly associated with the belief that economic success is due to individual effort," they report. It was also strongly associated with support for the armed forces.
Teasing out cause and effect from these results is tricky. Thorson and Serazio note that "both professional athletes and sports announcers often deliver a straightforward narrative in which victory is solely a function of effort." This reinforces a fundamental tenet of conservative thought: that we live in a just system in which those with enough drive and talent inevitably succeed. In addition, the link between lionizing physical strength and military strength is pretty obvious.
But it's impossible to say whether these implicit messages influence people's politics, or if, as the researchers put it, they "increase the likelihood that those who already hold conservative attitudes gravitate towards sports as a cultural diversion." Either way, the study presents more evidence of the many ways ideology affects our taste and behavior.
One other interesting finding: The researchers report self-described conservatives "are substantially more likely to oppose the mixing of sports and politics." They suspect this reflects the fact that, "historically, most ideological challenges that have arisen in sports have come from left-leaning agitators," such as the National Football League players who "take a knee" during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
If intense fans tend to be conservative, it's easy to see why they would be agitated by players' protests. Stadium sidelines are the last place they wish to be reminded that, in real life, the playing field isn't always even.