Views split on whether athletes should take a stand on political, social issues

Axios/Ipsos poll finds desire for athlete activism, and use of Native American-themed mascots, varies greatly by race and partisanship.

The author(s)

  • Chris Jackson Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Mallory Newall Vice President, US, Public Affairs
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Washington, DC, March 20, 2021

A slim majority of Americans feel it is appropriate for athletes (professional, college, and Olympic) to speak out on political or social issues, according to a new Axios/Ipsos “Hard Truths” poll. Though most acknowledge that athletes can have a positive impact when speaking out on issues around racial inequality, there are clear divisions in the data along partisan and racial/ethnic lines about athlete activism. This is particularly evident when looking whether it’s appropriate for athletes to kneel during the national anthem as a way to protest racial inequality.

Detailed findings:

1. There is little consensus among the American public on whether athletes should use their platform to speak out on political or social issues.

  • Overall, slightly over half believe it is appropriate for athletes to take a public stand on issues (52%-55%, depending on the type of athlete).
  • When presented as a forced choice, 50% say professional athletes should use their platform to express their views, while 48% say they should not do this.
  • The fault lines are both partisan and racial in nature. In general, a majority of white Americans and Republicans do not find it appropriate for athletes to engage in activism, while most Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans – and most Democrats – do.
  • A similar pattern emerges when it comes to opinion on whether athletes who speak out on issues of racial inequality are making a positive or negative impact when doing so.
  • The two groups where we see consensus on it being acceptable to speak out about issues are politicians and business leaders/CEOs, but there is less of a sense that they can have a positive impact on conversations around racial inequality (and more so for teachers and individuals).
Professional athletes speaking out about racial inequality


2. A majority of Americans say it is not appropriate for athletes, at any level, to kneel during the national anthem in order to protest racial inequality. Again, however, there are large differences in opinion under the surface.

  • Overall, around 54-59% of Americans say it is not appropriate for high school/youth, college, or professional athletes to bring attention to racial inequality by kneeling during the national anthem.
  • Black Americans are significantly more likely than white Americans to say this is an appropriate action to take. On high school or youth athletes kneeling, there is a nearly 60-point gap between the two groups: 75% of Black respondents say it is appropriate for these athletes to kneel, versus 28% of white respondents.
  • Bare majorities of Hispanic and Asian respondents agree that it is appropriate for athletes to kneel, but their views are more mixed and less crystallized than white or Black respondents.
  • Overall, 57% of Americans support requiring professional athletes to stand during the national anthem, and more than two-thirds (69%) support requiring professional teams to play the anthem before games. One in three support firing professional athletes for kneeling.

3. Most Americans do not want to ban sports teams from using Native American-themed mascots and feel that name changes have gone too far.  

  • Fifty-five percent of Americans oppose a ban on using Native American-themed mascots in sports; just 42% support.
  • The only groups where half or more support this type of mascot ban are Democrats (53%) and 18-29 year olds (50%).
  • By a nearly two-to-one ratio, people believe the use of Native American mascots honors the tribes and name changes have gone too far (64%), rather than it being disrespectful and needing to change (33%).  

4. A vast majority of Americans acknowledge it is unacceptable to use a racial slur as a sports team name. However, most feel Native American words, symbols, and pictures/depictions are acceptable.

  • Eighty-seven percent of Americans say using a racial slur as a sports team name is not acceptable, or rarely acceptable (a vast majority answer “not at all acceptable”).
  • However, 60% or more say it is acceptable to use a picture or depiction of a Native American, or a Native American word or symbol as a mascot, or to use Native American-themed mascots in all levels of sports.
  • Here too, differences emerge. Most Black Americans and Democrats are uncomfortable with using a picture or depiction of a Native American as a mascot, while white and Hispanic Americans, and Republicans, think it is acceptable in all or some cases.  
  • Black Americans are evenly split on whether it’s acceptable to use a Native American word or symbol, but not a picture (49% acceptable, 47% not). Majorities of all other demographic groups find this acceptable in some or all cases.  

5. Ultimately, for most, these are issues of free expression – and there is consensus for protecting an athlete’s ability to speak out.

  • Seventy-one percent agree that “Athletes speaking out against racial injustice is a form of free expression that should be protected.”
  • Fifty-four percent agree that a team using a Native American mascot is also a form of free expression.
  • When it comes to athletes speaking out, majorities agree this form of free expression needs to be protected – even groups that disagree with athletes lending their voice to social issues, like white Americans and Republicans.

About the Study

This Axios/Ipsos Hard Truth Sports poll was conducted March 4th to March 11th, 2021 by Ipsos using our KnowledgePanel®. This poll is based on a nationally representative probability sample of 2,035 general population adults age 18 or older.

The survey was conducted using KnowledgePanel, the largest and most well-established online probability-based panel that is representative of the adult US population. Our recruitment process employs a scientifically developed addressed-based sampling methodology using the latest Delivery Sequence File of the USPS – a database with full coverage of all delivery points in the US. Households invited to join the panel are randomly selected from all available households in the U.S. Persons in the sampled households are invited to join and participate in the panel. Those selected who do not already have internet access are provided a tablet and internet connection at no cost to the panel member. Those who join the panel and who are selected to participate in a survey are sent a unique password-protected log-in used to complete surveys online. As a result of our recruitment and sampling methodologies, samples from KnowledgePanel cover all households regardless of their phone or internet status and findings can be reported with a margin of sampling error and projected to the general population.

The study was conducted in both English and Spanish. The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race/ethnicity, education, Census region, metropolitan status, household income, race/ethnicity by gender, race/ethnicity by age, race/ethnicity by education and race/ethnicity by region. The demographic benchmarks came from 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) from the US Census Bureau. The weighting categories were as follows:

  • Gender (Male, Female) by Age (18–29, 30–44, 45–59, and 60+)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White Non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Asian Non-Hispanic, Other or 2+ Races Non-Hispanic, Hispanic)
  • Education (High School graduate or less, Some College, Bachelor and beyond)
  • Census Region (Northeast, Midwest, South, West)
  • Metropolitan status (Metro, non-Metro)
  • Household Income (Under $25,000, $25,000-$49,999, $50,000-$74,999, $75,000-$99,999, $100,000-$149,999, $150,000+)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by gender (Male, Female)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by age (18-44, 45+)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by education (Less than college grad, Bachelor and beyond)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by Census region (Northeast, Midwest, South, West)

The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of adults. The margin of sampling error takes into account the design effect, which was 1.40. The margin of sampling error is higher and varies for results based on sub-samples. In our reporting of the findings, percentage points are rounded off to the nearest whole number. As a result, percentages in a given table column may total slightly higher or lower than 100%. In questions that permit multiple responses, columns may total substantially more than 100%, depending on the number of different responses offered by each respondent.

About Ipsos

Ipsos is the world’s third largest Insights and Analytics company, present in 90 markets and employing more than 18,000 people.

Our passionately curious research professionals, analysts and scientists have built unique multi-specialist capabilities that provide true understanding and powerful insights into the actions, opinions and motivations of citizens, consumers, patients, customers or employees. We serve more than 5000 clients across the world with 75 business solutions.

Founded in France in 1975, Ipsos is listed on the Euronext Paris since July 1st, 1999. The company is part of the SBF 120 and the Mid-60 index and is eligible for the Deferred Settlement Service (SRD).

ISIN code FR0000073298, Reuters ISOS.PA, Bloomberg IPS:FP


The author(s)

  • Chris Jackson Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Mallory Newall Vice President, US, Public Affairs