Last week, a headline about the Tibet Women’s Soccer team caught my interest. They were planning on attending the Dallas Cup in April but were denied visas by the US State Department. In fact, the team was told that they did not have a good enough reason to travel to the United States.
And then, I thought long and hard about how sports and politics are impossible to separate. Lives aren’t lived in spheres. Everything intersects. And I know for many fans, that this is a hard pill to swallow. We want to compartmentalize. CNN in one box. ESPN in a separate box. But that’s not the world we live in. Newsfeeds and Twitter timelines are awash in stories and comments about players, coaches, and supporters making political statements.
And for many fans, this is a hard pill to swallow. They want to sit on their couches and take in their sports. They want the matches, the athletes, and the fellow fans to be an escape from the daily grind.
So I originally sat down to write an article about why it was impossible to separate the two. I took out my notepad and pen (yes, I still plan and draft hardcopy) and starting planning a course of action. And then, I realized I also wanted to know what my fellow fans felt. And so, I started writing a poll to ask soccer fans across the States what they felt about many of these pressing questions. Particularly, the poll revolved around three topics: should supporters make political demonstrations, should players make political demonstrations and how do fans feel about the recent political moves of US Soccer?
Below, you will find the results of that poll. Now, please remember that I am not a trained statistician and this was an internet poll, posted to Facebook soccer discussion groups and Reddit/r/mls. However, there are some interesting findings that are displayed below in 20 charts and some attached commentary.
PART ONE: DEMOGRAPHICS
In total, there were 767 viable responses, from almost every state across the country. The fans polled skewed heavily male and young, as 93% of the respondents were male. In my personal experience, the split of US Soccer fans is closer to more 80% male, 20% female. However, it should be noted that the distinct skew seen in these responses was exacerbated by the location of the link to the poll, as Reddit users also skew distinctly male.
As you can see, 81.2% of respondents are Millennials. This does seem to gel with data from other media outlets and research groups. According to John Guppy, founder of Chicago-based Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, “The average age of a soccer fan is always younger than the average age of other sports fans.” He continued, “Compared to Baby Boomers, Generation Y and Z consumers indicated they are more passionate about [soccer], follow more club teams, became fans much younger and played the sport more than older generations.”
The vast majority of respondents reported that they identify as Caucasian, with 76.8% choosing this label. Only 14.1 responded as Hispanic, which does seem low. Many other outlets report Hispanic viewership of MLS to be around 30%. According to demographicpartitions.org, “MLS has the most elevated amount of Hispanic viewer engagement, with 34% of their fan base having a place with this demographic.” I would account for this disparity with the fact that the survey was presented in only English, which is supported by responses for primary language. 87.6% of respondents stated that English was their primary language. Less than 1% of respondents stated that Spanish was their primary language. However, 11.4% said that they were bilingual in English & Spanish.
In other demographics, 327 of the 767 respondents said that they were season ticket holders of an MLS, NASL, or USL club. 273 said that they belonged to a supporters club for their local club. Only 3% of respondents said that they were season tickets holders to their local NWSL team.
PART TWO: POLITICAL & SOCIAL CLIMATE
From here, we can begin to look at the political and social climate data. For all questions, we’ll examine the answers of the respondents in entirety. Then, we can also examine the data by political affiliation.
As you can see, 52.3% (401) of respondents labeled themselves as liberal. Another 5% responded as being affiliated with other left political agendas. 23.4% (179) responded as moderate, 12.8% (99) as conservative & 3% as libertarian.
The survey asked three questions about political demonstrations: Should supporters make political demonstrations in the stands? Do you support players or coaches participating in political demonstrations at sporting events? Do you support players or coaches participating in political demonstrations outside sporting events?
The last question received an almost unanimous ‘yes’. Only 6% of respondents answered no. So with that, we’ll move on to the other two questions. Both have been broken down into data by the three major political affiliations: liberal, moderate, and conservative. The other groups of affiliations were too small to extract viable data.
Overall, the responses were split somewhat evenly to the first question: should supporters make political demonstrations. As expected, there was a large component of undecided respondents; one had this to say, “Depends. If the issue has something to do with the sport it’s fine. But I’d rather not bring outside political issues. Showing support for groups like LGBT groups is fine in my eyes, but that’s a double-edged sword as a line is very hard to draw. And I realize that due to my political views I’m biased.”
As expected, the respondents who affiliated conservative were less likely to approve of political demonstrations by supporters. Many of these respondents wrote something along the lines of “keep politics out of sports.” One respondent had this in particular to say, “I’m not attending sporting events to hear about politics. I dislike people co-opting the audience there to watch a game as a chance to get on a soap box.” Another conservative respondent said, “An arena should be a sacred place where people of all cultures and political persuasions can come together, cheer, dance, and sing. Not argue or push any agenda.”
Respondents who affiliated liberal were 150% more likely to respond yes to the question. Many argued that the displays were acceptable; in fact, they were necessary. One respondent said, “A supporters group has the organization and collective opportunity to make statements. If those statements can generate any positive change you could argue they have the responsibility to do so.” Another had this to say, “Yes, if the supporters groups feel threatened by certain decisions lawmakers are making then they have every right to. The supporters groups aren’t just fans, they’re people who are in the community every day. They have every right to voice their displeasure. In such a strange time in American politics, we need for organizing efforts within the community. And supporters groups are one of the best examples that I can imagine.”
There was a very similar breakdown over the second question of this section: Do you support players or coaches participating in political demonstrations at sporting events? Respondents of the conservative affiliation were 195% more likely to say that players shouldn’t make political displays at sporting events.
Many of the respondents’ comments discussed where athletes should be using their stardom for platforms, and more particularly, what types of platforms. One conservative respondent said, “I took this question as applying only to sporting events in the U.S. In countries without freedom of speech or freedom of assembly, political activism in stadiums can be good, as it may be their only opportunity to voice their opinions in relative safety. But in the U.S. anyone can express their opinions and demonstrate at their leisure, so this is not a concern. Sporting events are produced for entertainment and including political activism makes it less entertaining. Politics is depressing enough as it is; it can stay in its own arena and leave sports alone.”
However, one of the few conservative respondents who took the opposite stance had this to say, “I think it should be generally allowed (i.e. Kapernick), but I think the more we allow politics to creep into every aspect of our lives, the more we tend to be divided because we lose sight of common interests. So I defend the right, but I wouldn’t likely exercise it as a player.”
Many of the liberal respondents discussed the idea that players are people too. And thus, they have opinions and the right to speak those opinions. One respondent said, “This narrative that someone should stick to their job responsibilities only is asinine. So long as they are willing to receive any criticism along with the praise for their decision to make a political statement, more power to them.” And another said, “Being a professional athlete is akin to being a celebrity; your voice is heard and sometimes that is needed to get the message out about certain problems. Using a more recent example, look at Chance the Rapper publicly going out against the defunding of public schools in Chicago, it was a little-known problem to most outside of Chicago and now many people are helping his cause. If an athlete were to do that a lot could happen.”
It seems that this difference of opinion stems from the interpretation of the term ‘political demonstration.’ There are a myriad of reasons for this; many too complicated to unravel here. But one respondent seemed to explain the logic very well. He said, “Sporting events which 1) are explicitly marketed with materials promoting diversity and acceptance of sexual minorities (which is what MLS events are), and which 2) promote overt displays of patriotism via the singing of the national anthem in the presence of military marching bands and color guards, ARE political demonstrations. The idea that someone in the stands holding up a “Refugees Welcome” sign exists in some completely separate space of trying to make the event “political” is pretty myopic, in my view.”
The next three questions dealt with topics that could be labeled social issues or political stances. This seems to depend on what side of the aisle you sit. Many liberal thinkers would say they are social issues, and even go as far to say they are human rights issues. On the other hand, many conservatives would say they are political causes.
The first question asked do you consider flying the pride flag a political demonstration? Overall, 56.7% of respondents said no. However, what was surprising was the breakdown of those responses. This time the moderates were most likely to say that it wasn’t a political demonstration. But their percentage was only slightly higher than the liberal group.
The second question asked do you consider the pride armband that Michael Bradley wore on June 16th, 2016 a political statement? The percentage of response was very similar; 51.8% of respondents answered no. That means that 38 less respondents felt that the armband was a political statement. However, there were people who moved in both directions. And from those respondents came the most intriguing comments.
One who answered no to the first question and then yes to the second had this to say, “Gay pride is a sexual choice, not a political one. Bradley not being gay made it a political agenda to bring awareness during a time to motivate legislative change. I support anyone being politically active as they wish, just not to make it part of their job or club.”
Another who answered yes, then no commented, “Flags are inherently a political symbol that people understand worldwide. It has approached archetype status. Wearing an armband, in comparison to a team, a business or any institution flying a flag and or releasing public statements isn’t different from the Ultras I mentioned earlier. Keep it outside the Arena. But armbands I like. It’s impossible to divorce people from their political stances. Expressing it in an understated way is how people coexist. It reminds me of how EPL players wear poppies.”
The third and last question in this section asked about US Soccer’s new rule 604-1, which states “All persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented.” Respondents were asked if they agreed with this rule. Only 38.5% said that they agreed with the rule. Like the questions about political demonstrations, these responses broke along political affiliation lines. Conservatives were much more likely to say that they agreed with the rule. In fact, 91% of them said that they agreed with the rule.
Reading through the comments, it was very easy to see the different stances of the respondents. One side thinks that the anthem represents the country, and more importantly, fallen soldiers. And thus, kneeling for the anthem is disrespectful to these soldiers. Take for example this response, “My view is that standing for the national anthem and respecting the flag is our way to pay our respects to the brave men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our beautiful country. By kneeling during the nation’s anthem, I believe you are disrespecting the flag and in turn disrespecting those brave men and women.”
This side also felt that it did not matter if they agreed with the rule. But that if US Soccer made the rule, then the players must abide by the rule, as they were employees of US Soccer. “You’re choosing to represent your nation, but it’s also basically an employee code of conduct. If you can’t in good conscience stand for the anthem, you shouldn’t be wearing the jersey to begin with. I actually find Rapinoe hypocritical in this instance,” said one respondent.
However, the other side thinks that the rule is disrespectful to the inherent rights of the country. They also argue that the anthem does not represent the military, which is a stance many veterans also take. To them, these are freedoms that veterans fought for, and using them is the epitome of our country. One comment said, “Forcing people to stand for the national anthem is the antithesis of everything our country and flag stand for. By choosing to make this rule, USSF themselves have just further politicized the whole thing and I would applaud the team if they were to do some kind of group protest of the rule (doubtful, but would be a bold statement).”
Another respondent said, “Supporting your country does not require some traditional expression of nationalistic zeal like standing for the national anthem. Quite honestly, I think a protest like kneeling during the anthem does a greater service to our country than blindly avowing support, because the truth is that we as a country do not treat all of our citizens equally and a visible expression of our freedom to protest reminds people of that.”
PART THREE: LASTING THOUGHTS
Through all of this, I personally found one comment to be extremely poignant. In a rather long comment, the respondent asked if perhaps we should stop playing the national anthem before professional sporting events. “I have no problem with national anthems being played before international matches; I recognize that patriotism and national pride play large roles in these competitions. On the other hand, national anthems have no business being played before MLS matches (or NFL, NBA, MLB). [ . . . ] Playing the national anthem before sporting events started as a baseball tradition, taking hold sometime around the turn of the 20th century (ESPN the Magazine, Sep. 2011). The original intent was to drum up wartime patriotism. [ . . . ] As this tradition became entrenched, attending a baseball game evolved into a patriotic act. “Baseball is as American as apple pie,” the saying goes. Later, when football, basketball, and ultimately, MLS picked up steam and grew, they too adopted the tradition. Now, attending any sports game had become a patriotic act. But why? The national anthem isn’t played at other entertainment experiences. No Francis Scott Key at the movies, nor at Broadway plays, nor at mini putt-putt. The fact is that attending sports games are not inherently patriotic acts or experiences, but smart team owners and league commissioners try to convince us otherwise in order to appeal to our patriotic notions/tendencies. There are very few inherently patriotic things in life (paying taxes, military service, visiting Arlington National Cemetery, etc.) and we should save the Star Spangled Banner for those truly patriotic things.” (edited for length)
When I sat and contemplated this comment, I saw real truth in it. Why do we, American sports, play the national anthem before every sporting match? Other sports leagues in other countries don’t play their national anthem. (And yes, I know we don’t need to be exactly like other countries.) But I think the commenter is onto something. Sports aren’t a demonstration of American patriotism; they’re a demonstration of athleticism. And those two ideas have nothing in common.
So if people want to keep politics out of sports, then isn’t the first move to stop playing the national anthem at professional league games?