The Marist polling organization, which also had a presidential race poll out over the weekend, was widely publicized recently for its poll asking fans of professional sports why they weren’t following them as they had in past seasons. (The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have seen significant TV ratings drops in their respective weird, pandemic-marred seasons.) The headlines in one news source after another focused on a single “finding”: the invasion of political posturing by athletes had not played the primary role in driving fans away. “No, the increased political activism in professional sports doesn’t explain the ratings decline,” wrote Yahoo Sports, repeated by AOL. “And no, the sports where that activism is the most pronounced, like the NBA, haven’t suffered more in comparison.”
That may or may not be true, but the Marist poll cited didn’t indicate either of those conclusions, because those polled were not asked about either issue with sufficient precision or clarity.
As Ethics Alarms has been discussing since Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the National Anthem for no apparent reason (or at least not one that he could explain clearly), what sports fans object to is not professional athletes engaging in political activism by stating their views, however ignorant or ill-considered, or shooting off their metaphorical mouths on social media. What sports fans don’t like and don’t want to pay for or waste time absorbing (and what I personally resent) is political posturing and advocacy on the field, before and during games, in ways that interfere with the entertainment value of the sports themselves.
The Marist poll didn’t ask about any of that, rendering it useless and misleading. Here was what the poll did ask: “Please tell me if each of the following has made you more likely to watch sports broadcasts, less likely, or has it not made any difference in how often you watch live sports broadcasts this year?,” with the sole option related to politics being, “Athletes speaking out on political issues.”
That answer merely carries on the false argument being pushed by “woke” pundits and constitutional ignoramuses from the start of “Kneegate”: Critics are trying to stifle athletes’ First Amendment right to free speech! Not true, and it was never true. Athletes can spout political opinions all they want, like any other citizens—in the public square, on radio and TV talk shows, on social media, in their living rooms, in bars, around the campfire. We don’t care. We don’t admire athletes for their public policy acumen. The sports stars are not welcome, however, any more than bank tellers, auto repair experts and typing teachers are, to use their workplace as a platform to harangue customers and patrons.
The professional sports franchises marred the entertainment experience of their fans when they trembled in terror from the possibility of player union disfavor and turned their stadiums, ballparks and arenas into Black Lives Matter festivals. That is not the same thing as “Athletes speaking out on political issues.” It’s not even close. Yet not only did the pollsters at Marist not ask the key question, the media’s reporting on the poll results uncritically represented that it did.
That is why we cannot trust polls. The relevant cliche is “garbage in, garbage out.” It would also help if those reporting on the garbage out had the perception to point out “This is garbage.”