From the singing of the national anthem to salutes to military personnel, patriotic displays permeate major sports events in the United States.
But only about half of Americans (47%) surveyed in 2018-2019 agreed that sports teach love of country, according to a new study. Even fewer believed sports teach respect for the military (34%) or teach people how to be an American (33%).
“The patriotic imagery and messages in sports are so common that many people don’t even recognize it is there,” said Chris Knoester, lead author of the study and associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.
“That suggests many people probably don’t realize how nationalism and patriotism are taught and encouraged through sports in America.”
Knoester conducted the study with Evan Davis, visiting assistant professor of sport management at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. Their results were published online recently in the journal International Review for the Sociology of Sport.
The survey was completed by 3,993 adults who volunteered to participate through the American Population Panel, run by Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research. Participants, who came from all 50 states, answered the survey online between the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019.
The research was designed to analyze how much Americans noticed the patriotic messaging in sports, Davis said.
“We have the singing of the national anthem, the giant flag, the military flyovers – it is part of our culture and people accept it as normal – so much so that it is often not even noticed,” Davis said.
“But can you imagine going to a theater and having everyone stand up before the movie and sing the national anthem? It is really a unique part of sports in the United States.”
Results showed that while many people didn’t see sports as promoting patriotic messaging, some groups were more likely to see such messages.
In particular, men, heterosexuals, Christians and Republicans were more likely than others to say that sports teach love of country, respect for the military and how to be an American.
“These tend to be groups that have traditionally had high status in the United States, been comfortable with their situations, and therefore have positive feelings about these values,” Knoester said. “It makes sense that they are more aware and supportive of these cultural messages in sports.”
But, unexpectedly, the researchers found that some lower-status groups – Black, Latino and high-school educated Americans – were more likely than white and college-educated people to agree that sports taught love of country, respect for the military and how to be an American.
“That may be because sports are seen as more meritocratic than the rest of society and offer more opportunities for advancement in our society for people who are not white and college educated,” Knoester said.
Not surprisingly, people who identified more strongly as sports fans were also more likely to agree that sports promote these cultural values.
This suggests that sports fans are not only especially aware of these messages, but they explicitly, or at least tacitly, approve of these messages because of their continued passion for sports, he said.
Knoester said this research is a first step at trying to understand how Americans view the messages promoted by sports.
“Based on our findings, it seems that most Americans do not recognize sport as a social institution that promotes nationalism – although there is good evidence that it does,” he said.
“We need to continue to research which cultural messages are promoted through sports, why, and to what effect.”