The NFL is well-acquainted with controversy: Decades before Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem, players protested racial injustice and constraints upon their bargaining power. Yet, the current moment presents unprecedented extremes in fan reactions to athletes' actions. Some doubt kneeling players' patriotism, while others applaud their gesture as emblematic of American values. After a Nike ad celebrated Kaepernick's stand, some cut swooshes from their socks, while others rushed to buy gear in solidarity.
Additionally, some players have attracted scrutiny for non-political personal conduct. In recent years, some of the league's brightest stars have faced allegations of domestic violence, while dozens of players are arrested for other criminal offenses annually. How do these events affect fans' perceptions of these players, and how much do they matter relative to performance on the field?
We surveyed more than 1,500 NFL fans to find out, gathering responses from followers of every franchise. Our findings reveal which actions have the greatest impact on fan sentiment, from players' political stances to personal conduct. Want to see how the average fan's opinions stack up against your own? Keep reading.
Among the various factors that influence fans' perceptions of players, on-field performance is still the most powerful: More than 6 in 10 fans said an athlete's success during games shaped their impressions of him. Yet, legal issues mattered nearly as much, with 57 percent stating that a player's run-ins with the law would impact how they viewed him. Colts fans, which have seen their fair share of players arrested in recent years, were particularly likely to find legal issues relevant. At the other end of the spectrum, less than a quarter of Carolina fans said legal issues would affect their judgments about a player, despite troubling past incidents such as the murder conviction of former Panther Rae Carruth.
Less than 45 percent of fans said a player's stance on social issues would sway their judgment, although some fan bases were far more willing to scrutinize players' opinions on these matters. Dolphins fans, for example, were most likely to care about players' social stances; before the 2018 season, Miami incited controversy with a move to fine players for kneeling during the national anthem. Conversely, less than a third of Kansas City fans said they'd care about a player's beliefs on social issues, and the Browns faithful were similarly indifferent.
Buccaneers fans were the most attuned to players' personal choices, perhaps because of their frustrations with the alcohol-fueled behaviors of quarterback Jameis Winston. On the other hand, just 6 percent of Los Angeles Rams fans said they cared about players' decisions in their private lives. The Rams faithful were similarly unconcerned with players' media presence, whereas Steelers fans were the most likely to say an athlete's statements on digital platforms contributed to their perceptions. After the Twitter antics of Antonio Brown, who could blame them?
The legal troubles of NFL players vary substantially, and followers of each franchise expressed differing degrees of discomfort with certain offenses. Miami fans took a particularly dim view of drug convictions, as did followers of the Seattle Seahawks – despite Washington's relaxed approach to policing pot. Fans tended to be harsher regarding performance-enhancing drugs than mind-altering ones, with 80 percent of respondents finding convictions for PEDs unacceptable. Still, some fan bases, such as Tampa Bay, were relatively forgiving on the subject of performance-enhancing substances (possibly in solidarity with running back Doug Martin).
Domestic and sexual violence prompted far more condemnation than drug use, however. Approximately 92 percent of respondents found it unacceptable for a player to be convicted of domestic violence, sexual harassment or rape. Despite this broad consensus, fans of some franchises were strikingly willing to accept players convicted of these behaviors. Sixteen percent of Kansas City fans, for example, judged players convicted of domestic violence, sexual harassment or rape acceptable. Whatever fans' opinions, critics say NFL executives are not doing enough to acknowledge the severity of these crimes. Indeed, players actively battling domestic violence and sexual assault charges continue to be drafted to enviable positions.
On the whole, fans seemed most willing to accept NFL players taking stands on issues of racial injustice and police brutality: More than three-quarters of respondents said it was acceptable for players to voice their opinions on these issues. Interestingly, followers of the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick's former squad, was the fanbase most willing to support players who took a stand on these subjects. The team's fans have even called for Kaepernick's return in recent times of quarterback uncertainty. Conversely, Carolina fans were most likely to disapprove of players speaking out on racial issues. Despite this sentiment, the Panthers recently signed Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick's fellow kneelers in San Francisco.
On matters concerning presidential invitations and actions during the national anthem, however, more division emerged. More than a fifth of respondents found it unacceptable for a player to refuse to visit the White House (a prospect that led President Trump to disinvite the Eagles in 2018). Additionally, roughly 3 in 10 fans found kneeling or staying in the locker room during the anthem unacceptable. Steelers and Broncos fans were particularly likely to judge kneeling unacceptable, whereas Lions and Dolphins fans were the least keen on staying indoors during The Star-Spangled Banner. Regardless of team affiliation, racial identity played a role as well: Relative to their white peers, African-American fans were 24 percent more likely to find kneeling during the anthem acceptable.
Despite the substantial demands of their careers, many NFL players find time to indulge in a bit of debauchery – occasionally or excessively. Seventeen percent of fans disapproved of players dating a porn star, for example. Interestingly, San Francisco fans were among the most judgmental on this subject despite the reported romance between 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and adult film actress Kiara Mia. Players' strip club visits earned roughly equal scorn from fans overall, although Eagles and Dolphins fans were exceptionally critical on this subject.
Some fan bases, including followers of the Eagles and Panthers, were particularly harsh about players' excessive partying. But across the league, fans were more likely to find wild partying unacceptable than to let it slide. They were even more likely to condemn paying for sex; more than half of fans found this behavior unacceptable for players. The league may encounter some trouble in this department as the Raiders move to Las Vegas next year: Prostitution is legal throughout much of Nevada.
Opinions on players' media presence varied significantly among fans of different franchises. A third of Carolina Panthers fans disapproved of negative talk regarding the president, despite blatant criticism of Donald Trump from the team's new owner. Among some fan bases, however, it was even more unacceptable for players to praise the president. At least a third of Chicago and Kansas City fans said they'd disapprove of players' comments complimenting Trump. Overall, it seemed statements for and against the president were likely to alienate fans in equal numbers: Eighteen percent of fans found anti-Trump statements unacceptable, and nearly 19 percent said the same of pro-Trump pronouncements.
In fact, about a fifth of fans said players' expressions on all political matters via social media or news outlets were unacceptable. There were some notable exceptions to this rule, however. In Baltimore, for example, 80 percent of fans accepted players' expressing their views on these platforms, and just 10 percent found this player behavior unacceptable. One aspect of public discourse prompted far more consensus, however: More than 9 in 10 fans found it unacceptable to post racist content on social media. This issue loomed large in the case of coveted draft pick Josh Allen who tweeted racial slurs during his high school years.
How might fans' political views impact their perceptions of players? As one might expect, players' stances on social issues seemed to prompt differing interpretations among members of each party. In fact, our data present a consistent pattern: Regarding players' stances on social issues, we consistently found strong support from Democrats, moderate support among Independents, and relatively harsh condemnation among Republicans. This partisan dynamic likely isn't lost on the president: His criticism of kneeling players resonates deeply with his political base.
Republicans also judged matters of personal conduct slightly more harshly than Independents and Democrats: They were more likely to find dating a porn star, going to strip clubs, or paying for sex unacceptable. Yet, on some criminal issues, conservatives tended to be most forgiving – albeit by a slim margin. Republicans were the least likely to find players' illicit and performance-enhancing drug use unacceptable, for instance. Regarding rape and sexual harassment, however, Republicans were significantly more likely to find these behaviors unacceptable than Independents and Democrats.
Has President Trump's ardent criticism of players who kneel during the national anthem shifted the opinions of average Americans? Most fans said Trump's feelings hadn't affected their own, although Republicans were most likely to be swayed by his sentiments. Interestingly, Independents were less likely than Democrats to say their thinking had been changed by the president's approach. This finding suggests Trump's tweets and campaign speeches may have actually inspired additional support for the kneeling players among Democrats. Indeed, some liberal candidates have seized the opportunity to embrace their cause in opposition to the president.
Miami fans were the most likely to say the president's position had affected their own thinking on the anthem issue in some way. Whether Dolphins fans support his stance is another question: Most voters in Miami-Dade County sided with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Conversely, 86 percent of Seahawks fans said Trump's statements did not affect their own views. As one of the nation's most liberal cities, Seattle was always unlikely to accept Trump's approach. Nonetheless, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has vocally opposed the president on this issue, as have several of his players.
As far as punishments the NFL could employ to curb unacceptable player behaviors, fans were most concerned with domestic violence. Indeed, 82 percent of fans said the league should intervene with a fine or suspension in such cases, and roughly half said the appropriate punishment would be a full-season suspension. In reality, punishments tended to be far less severe: Players were suspended for just 3.5 games, on average, following domestic violence convictions in 2017. The league has come under fire for this limited response: In 2018, a domestic violence expert resigned from her position with the NFL, claiming they did little to implement her suggestions.
The use of illicit drugs seemed to prompt an opposite phenomenon: Whereas players were suspended for more than five games for this offense, on average, a plurality of fans thought a suspension of one to three games would be appropriate. Conversely, roughly 30 percent of fans thought players using performance-enhancing substances should sit for a full season. Interestingly, nearly three-quarters of fans felt no suspension was warranted for players who elected to kneel during the national anthem. In 2018, the league announced rules requiring players to stand while the anthem played but quickly halted enforcement in the face of mounting public backlash.
Our findings illustrate several areas in which fans typically find consensus – and many more in which fundamental divides continue to run deep. Basic principles of human decency do represent a common denominator: The vast majority of people won't excuse acts of explicit racism or violence, no matter how well a given player performs. In the realm of competing political perspectives, however, no such agreement is evident. As far as allegiances on these issues, fan opinions correspond closely to their political affiliations – regardless of which team they root for on Sundays. We live in partisan times, and our perceptions of player conduct are no exception.
In some ways, however, the diversity of fan sentiment reveals one of the sport's greatest virtues: the ability to incite passions in citizens across the political spectrum. One can disagree bitterly with fellow fans and still revel together in a team's success. At TickPick, we believe everyone should have a shot at experiencing sports and entertainment live. That's why we're the only online ticket marketplace that puts consumers first, cutting out buyers' fees so that fans always pay a fair price. Now, that's a stand every fan can support.
We collected responses from 1,558 people using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. 26.4% of participants were female, and 73.6% were male. Participants ranged in age from 15 to 77 with a mean of 35.7 and a standard deviation of 11.6. Participants were excluded if they were not a fan of an NFL team or were clearly not paying attention (failed one of the attention-check questions or responded with obviously inconsistent data). Statistical testing was not performed.
Self-reported studies may suffer from certain disadvantages due to the way subjects can respond while taking surveys. These disadvantages include, but are not limited to, the following: attribution, selective memory, telescoping, and exaggeration.
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