(Original release date: October 3, 2012) The quarterback starts his post-game interview by thanking “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The small forward sinks the winning bucket, then crosses himself and kneels on the hardwood floor in a prayer of thanksgiving. How do Americans feel about these religious expressions by professional athletes?
Survey findings released today from Grey Matter Research (Phoenix, Arizona) show relatively few Americans react negatively to the frequent intersection between professional sports and religion.
Grey Matter Research surveyed a demographically representative sample of American adults about their reactions when professional athletes do things such as pray together on the field after a game, give credit to God for their performance, or make religious signs or gestures after accomplishing something during a game.
For the seven different forms of religious expression measured in this study, the average is that 49% of Americans feel positively toward these expressions by professional athletes, 32% don’t care one way or another, and 19% have a negative reaction. On average, 26% are very positive toward these religious expressions and 23% are just somewhat positive toward them; 12% are somewhat negative toward them, while only 7% are very negative toward them.
The seven different types of religious expression explored in the study are:
- Athletes from opposing teams gathering together on the field or court after a game for prayer – 55% feel positively toward this, 32% don’t care one way or the other, and 12% feel negatively toward this
- Athletes speaking up about their faith in interviews after the game (such as saying, “I want to give God the glory for this” or “First let me give thanks to God”) – 52% feel positively, 29% don’t care, and 20% feel negatively
- Athletes speaking up about their faith in interviews after the game (such as saying, “I want to give Jesus Christ the glory for this” or “First let me give thanks to Jesus Christ”) – 50% feel positively, 29% don’t care, and 21% feel negatively
- An athlete making a religious sign (such as kneeling in prayer or pointing toward heaven) after making a big play, such as scoring a touchdown in football – 49% feel positively, 34% don’t care, and 17% feel negatively
- Athletes praying for victory before a game – 48% feel positively, 35% don’t care, and 17% feel negatively
- Well-known athletes speaking at religious events in order to encourage people to attend those events – 47% feel positively, 34% don’t care, and 19% feel negatively
- Athletes suggesting that God helped them or their team accomplish something (such as saying, “God really gave me strength out there,” or “I kept believing and God let me hit that home run”) – 43% feel positively, 31% don’t care, and 26% feel negatively
Many of the individuals who say they don’t care one way or another about each of these religious expressions by athletes are people who don’t pay attention to sports. For example, when it comes to athletes making religious signs or gestures on the field of play, 27% of Americans who pay some or a lot of attention to sports are indifferent to this behavior, compared to 42% of those who pay little or no attention to sports. When only the opinions of sports fans are considered, reactions to most of these religious expressions are less indifferent and more positive.
Public reaction to religious expressions by professional athletes does not vary much according to demographic factors such as gender, ethnicity, age group, education, or household income. But as might be expected, reaction varies considerably by religious beliefs and involvement.
Among Americans who attend religious worship services on a regular basis, the average for the seven types of religious expression by athletes is that 37% tend to react very positively, 27% react somewhat positively, 24% don’t care one way or the other, 7% tend to react somewhat negatively, and 4% react very negatively. Among those who do not attend religious services on a regular basis, the average is that 18% react very positively, 20% react somewhat positively, 38% don’t care one way or another, 15% tend to react somewhat negatively, and 10% react very negatively.
Still, it is worth noting that even among Americans who do not attend religious services, 38% generally have a positive reaction to religious expressions by professional athletes, while just 25% tend to have a negative reaction.
The same types of differences could be seen according to the religious preference held by each survey respondent:
- Among Protestants: (including Baptist, Methodist, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Church of Christ, and all other Protestant groups): on average, 66% tend to react positively to these seven different types of religious expression among athletes, 23% don’t care one way or another, and 12% react negatively
- Among Roman Catholics: 57% tend to react positively, 30% are indifferent, and 12% react negatively
- Among people from all faith groups other than Catholic and Protestant (Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Mormon, Orthodox Christian, etc.): 25% tend to react positively, 52% are indifferent, and 23% react negatively
- Among people who have no particular religious identification or preference: 24% tend to react positively, 45% are indifferent, and 29% react negatively
- Among atheists and agnostics: 12% tend to react positively, 38% are indifferent, and 50% react negatively
Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, found it interesting that religious Americans were not as positive as one might imagine toward expressions of faith among professional athletes. “On average, although a majority of people who attend religious worship services have a positive reaction when pro athletes express their religious faith, it is interesting that about 36% don’t react positively,” Sellers said. “In fact, only 37% say they tend to have a very positive reaction to these expressions of faith. Positive feelings toward these expressions of religious belief are a bit more muted than one might expect among religious Americans.”
At the same time, Sellers noted, Americans who are not religious usually have a much less negative reaction to these public expressions of faith than many people might imagine. “Among Americans who have no particular religious belief or identification, on average, just 29% tend to react negatively to things such as on-field prayers or giving praise to God in a post-game interview, while almost as many – 23% – tend to react positively to this. Even among people who are atheist or agnostic, only half generally have a negative reaction to these expressions of faith, while 12% actually react positively, and the rest don’t much care.”
The study uncovered a few other interesting findings about religion and sports. One is that there is a fairly consistent reaction to different types of religious expression in athletics. The proportion of Americans who feel negatively toward any of these seven different types of expression ranges from a low of just 12% who do not like seeing athletes gather together after a contest for prayer to a high of 26% who react negatively when athletes suggest God helped them accomplish something. The difference of opinion from one type of expression to the next is relatively small.
Another finding of interest is that there is almost no difference in public reaction according to whether athletes talk about God or about Jesus Christ. As Sellers explained, “In American society today, references to ‘God’ are often considered less potentially divisive or offensive than are specific references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ which are often seen as more sectarian. For this reason, we specifically asked people how they feel about athletes saying things such as ‘I want to thank God,’ versus ‘I want to thank Jesus Christ.’”
Consistently, the findings show no difference in public reaction according to whether athletes are talking about God or Jesus Christ. This is true whether the group being measured is Christians, people from non-Christian religions, people with no particular religious preference, or atheists and agnostics. In general, Americans either look favorably on both, or dislike both – very few people accept mentions of God but look negatively on mentions of Jesus Christ by professional athletes.
Finally, some of the most visible and outspoken religious athletes in recent years have come from the evangelical Christian community (Kurt Warner, Tim Tebow, Reggie White, Dwight Howard, Curt Schilling, etc.). The vast majority of evangelical Americans look very favorably on demonstrations of religious faith in the sports world. On average, 66% of evangelicals feel very positively toward these seven different expressions of faith, while another 21% tend to react somewhat positively, 9% don’t care one way or another, 4% react somewhat negatively, and 4% react very negatively.
However, the reactions of evangelicals vary by the type of expression by athletes. At least three out of four evangelicals react very positively when professional athletes gather together for prayer (81%) or speak up about their faith in post-game interviews (79% when God is mentioned; 76% when Jesus Christ is mentioned). Fewer (but still a strong majority) react very positively when athletes speak at religious events in order to encourage people to attend (63%), make a religious gesture after a big play (61%), or pray for victory before a game (60%).
But evangelicals are less strongly positive when athletes suggest God helped them or their team accomplish something: only 43% react very positively toward this, while 39% react somewhat positively, 8% don’t care, and 10% react negatively.
The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, a research and consumer insights company located in Phoenix, Arizona. The sample of 1,010 adults is accurate to within ±3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.
The study was conducted in all 50 states. Respondents’ age, education, household income, geography, racial/ethnic background, and gender were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.