Mar 20, 2021 - Sports

Axios-Ipsos poll: The growing sports divide over race and politics

Americans are divided by race and politics over the appropriateness of political activism in sports, especially when it comes to athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, according to a new Axios-Ipsos poll.

Yes, but: The poll also found that Americans have more mixed feelings on the use of Native American-themed mascots, which generate strong opposition among Black Americans while other groups are more open to it.

The poll shows how race and politics shape Americans' attitudes toward modern sports — including athletes' protests against racial injustice and the moves to change sports team names and mascots that strike many as outdated and racist, like the Cleveland Indians and the former name of the Washington Football Team.

  • The racial divisions highlighted by last year's Black Lives Matter protests remain, and the political conflicts may be even deeper now.

What they're saying: "There is no aspect or domain in our lives that isn't politicized today, and especially sports," said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs.

  • "Sports used to be a refuge. It used to be a place where we could put aside politics or business or anything else and have a safe space. That's not the case anymore."

By the numbers: Overall, people were nearly evenly split on whether professional athletes should express their views on national issues — though strong majorities of respondents of all races and ethnicities said protests against racial injustice are free expression and should be protected.

  • But the split on advocating personal views came largely from the opposition of white respondents: 60% said athletes shouldn't express their views. By contrast, large majorities of Black respondents (84%), Hispanic respondents (63%), and Asian respondents (68%) said they should.
  • There was also a huge partisan gap, with eight out of 10 Republicans — including 84% of white Republicans — saying athletes shouldn't express their views. Three out of four Democrats and 57% of independents said they should.

The conflict was even greater over whether it's appropriate for athletes to kneel during the national anthem. A slight majority said it's not appropriate — but that was because a strong majority of white respondents opposed the tactic.

  • More than nine out of 10 white Republicans said kneeling is inappropriate, and nearly six out of 10 white independents agreed. Among white Democrats, 68% said it's OK to kneel.

Flashback: A powerful and lasting racial divide opened when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in 2016. A Reuters-Ipsos poll that year found that 61% disagreed with Kaepernick, but that number dropped sharply for people of color.

  • At the time, most Americans said he shouldn't be penalized — and in our poll, most said athletes who kneel during the national anthem shouldn't be fired or fined.

The poll found that the public largely accepts Native American-themed team names or mascots in a year when several professional teams dropped or modified them. But they have struck a particular nerve with Black Americans.

  • Overall, 64% said the use of Native American mascots honors the tribes and that team name changes have gone too far.
  • But those findings were nearly reversed among Black Americans, with 61% saying the use of mascots is disrespectful. A strong majority of white respondents and narrower majorities of Hispanic and Asian respondents said the use of mascots honors the tribes.
  • "I think it has to do with experience," said Young. "Black America's experience with racism, institutionalized and otherwise, is quite different from other Americans."
  • The poll included Native Americans in proportion to their share of the U.S. population, but that share — roughly 2% — wasn't big enough to produce a statistically significant sample to break out Native Americans' views on this subject.

Between the lines: Some people drew distinctions depending on what the mascot or team name is.

  • Black respondents were strongly opposed to using pictures or depictions of a Native American as a mascot, but split more evenly on whether it's OK to use a Native American word or symbol, like "Braves," without a picture.
  • Hispanic and Asian respondents were narrowly divided over the use of pictures, but strong majorities said it was acceptable to use words or symbols.
  • When asked whether it's "acceptable" or "unacceptable" to use a racial slur for a sports team name, more than eight out of 10 Americans in all groups — including white respondents — said it's unacceptable.

Methodology: This Axios/Ipsos Poll was conducted March 4-11 by Ipsos' KnowledgePanel®. This poll is based on a nationally representative probability sample of 2,035 general population adults age 18 or older.

  • The margin of sampling error is ±2.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of adults.
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