By Katharine Webster
Should betting on sports be legalized? Should college athletes be paid to play? What do Americans think about research on the long-term effects of repeated head injuries? Is tackle football safe for children?
Those were some of the questions posed in a recent series of polls conducted by UMass Lowell and The Washington Post. The public opinion survey looked at Americans’ opinions on a wide range of sports-related topics.
The partnership with the Post, one of the nation’s most respected newspapers, is a testament to the fast-rising reputation of the university’s Center for Public Opinion after the center’s tracking polls for the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primaries and general election proved more accurate than other, more-established public opinion polls.
“We’re excited to be working with The Washington Post on this project, which examines a topic that’s so central to American life, but studied so infrequently,” says Joshua Dyck, associate professor of political science and co-director of the Center for Public Opinion. “Our goal is to be recognized as one of the national leaders in public opinion research. Our work with the Post lets people know that we’re not just a local polling organization, but a national one.”
The sports polls grew out of a collaboration between the center and Political Science Prof. Jeffrey Gerson, who researches and teaches courses on the politics of sports. In spring 2016, the center worked with Gerson on a poll measuring what Americans knew about the long-term effects of repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries suffered by football and soccer players – and whether they thought that college and professional sports leagues were doing enough to address the issue. The results of that poll were picked up by media outlets across the country.
Both professors had contacts at The Post and began discussing a partnership, which led to this summer and fall’s more extensive series of polls, the largest survey of Americans’ attitudes toward sports in over a decade, Dyck says. Gerson’s students helped brainstorm some of the questions.
The latest polls were the first to find that a majority of Americans support legalization of sports betting. The last poll on that topic, conducted in 1993 by Gallup/CNN/USA Today, found most people opposed.
The polls also found that more than three-quarters of Americans are sports fans – and that NFL football remains America’s favorite sport, despite fans’ concerns about head injuries to players and off-field violence, including domestic violence, committed by players. Although most Americans believe tackle football is unsafe for children younger than 13 years old, most believe it is safe once players reach high school age, the polls found.
“The vast majority of Americans have heard about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and believe in the science that says football concussions and head injuries contribute to it,” Dyck says. “Our poll was reflecting the struggle of people to reconcile their love of football with their concern for the health of their heroes.”
Dyck says one of the main reasons fans continue to watch football, despite some ambivalence, is the social ritual of gathering with friends and family to enjoy the games.
The polls found college football and Major League Baseball tied for second place in popularity. Pro and college basketball ranked fourth and fifth.
A majority of Americans think college athletes should not be paid to play beyond the scholarships they receive – unless the colleges profit from licensing college athletes’ names and likenesses for mass marketing or video games. Then two-thirds of those polled think the athletes should be paid.