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A new study from Barna shows most Americans believe sports figures have a greater influence than do professional clergy or other faith leaders.
With perhaps the biggest sporting event of the year last weekend, Barna Group looks at the influence of athletes and the role faith plays in American sports. A new study from Barna shows most Americans believe sports figures have a greater influence than do professional clergy or other faith leaders.

Athletes Top Pastors
There is plenty of research to show the declining sway of clergy, but who are Americans looking to instead? By more than a three-to-one margin, Americans believe professional sports players have more influence on society than do faith leaders. Overall, about two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they think pro athletes have more influence in American society today than do professional faith leaders (19%). Others say both (8%) have equal influence or are not sure (10%).

Sports figures are deemed most influential by those making $60,000-plus, college graduates, whites and parents. Those most likely to select faith leaders were weekly church attenders and those with incomes under $40,000.

Americans Like Sports + Faith
As part of the Baltimore Ravens somewhat unlikely trip to the Super Bowl, Ray Lewis has often thanked God in televised interviews. How do Americans feel about such public expressions of faith? When asked about the matter in general, adults say they favor professional and prominent college athletes talking about their faith in media or events seen by the general public (61% support this while 12% do not). Another one-quarter of Americans (28%) are simply undecided on the matter.

Those most favorable toward public expressions of faith are Boomers (66%), parents of children under the age of 18 (66%), evangelicals (88%), and blacks (79%). Women are also more supportive than were men (65% versus 56%). The only group that was split on the issue is those who are atheists and agnostics, although 34% of this group still favors athletes being able to talk about their faith in media or public events.

Does Anyone Care to Listen?
Most Americans believe when an athlete talks about his or her faith publicly it does not make much of a difference for those who hear those comments. Still, about one-third of adults (32%) contend these kinds of public displays make their hearers more spiritually minded. Women, residents of the South, evangelicals, and church attenders are among the most likely to believe this.

Why Sports and Faith Do—and Don’t—Go Together
Americans who favor public displays of faith in sports say they do so primarily because they believe athletes should have freedom of speech (40%). Another 11% said people should talk about their faith, and 10% said talking about faith can have a positive effect on others. Other common reasons include that faith is a part of who someone is (7%), that they are not bothered by public expressions of faith (7%), that they share the same faith or values (6%), that since people look up to the athletes it might be beneficial to others (6%), that people should not be ashamed or embarrassed to share their faith (5%), and that athletes should use their prominent position to talk about faith (4%).

Among those who oppose sports figures talking about their faith publicly, the most frequently mentioned reason for resisting this behavior is feeling that faith should be kept personal and that it’s not appropriate to force one’s beliefs on others (45%). Other common reasons include the perception that athletes should “just play the game” (21%), that the viewers are not interested in hearing about their faith (10%), and that they shouldn’t use their fame to push their agenda (8%). Less prominent reasons for opposing the mixing of faith and sports includes not believing in religion (4%) and feeling these episodes are just an act (4%).

What Players are Recognized for Their Faith?
Tim Tebow, having introduced a new expression for genuflecting, is easily the most prominent athlete known for his faith. A remarkable 51% of Americans mentioned Tebow in a top-of-mind manner as linking religion and sports. The next closest players are Kurt Warner (2%) and Jeremy Lin (2%).

The research also explored awareness of seven prominent athletes by asking adults if they are aware of these athletic performers and whether they are aware of the athlete’s public discussion of faith. Again, Tebow emerges at the top of the pile:

* Tim Tebow, pro football player
83% of Americans are aware of Tebow; 73% feel favorably about his public discussion of faith

* Kurt Warner, retired pro football player
59% overall awareness; 80% are favorable toward his public discussions of faith

* Jeremy Lin, pro basketball player
40% awareness; 76% favorability

* Bubba Watson, professional golfer
40% awareness; 77% favorability

* Albert Pujols, professional baseball player
36% awareness; 81% favorability

* Robert Griffin III, professional football player
34% awareness; 78% favorability

* Clayton Kershaw, professional baseball player
25% awareness, 78% favorability

What the Research Suggests
The research points out that “most Americans are comfortable with a mash-up of their faith and their sports,” suggests David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. “That there’s such a strong and positive awareness of Tim Tebow and his faith reveals Americans—and particularly Christians—desire for an authentic role model who is willing to so publicly connect his faith and life.”

Kinnaman also mentions the connection between public faith declarations and issues of religious liberty, “American’s are keenly aware of and concerned about maintaining religious liberty. Even if they didn’t agree with or particularly care for an athlete’s faith declarations, Americans would be hesitant to limit that person’s ability to speak up about their faith. The real question, though, would be whether or not Americans would embrace athletes publicly promoting a faith other Christianity. In fact, the only non-Christian athlete who shows up in the research is Muhammad Ali. However, his connection to the Muslim faith was only mentioned in a top-of-mind way by just 1% of adults. America is comprised of a majority of self-described Christians, so how much diversity of faith will they accept in their sports figures? In any case, the role of faith and sports should continue to be a point of interest among Americans for years to come.”

Barna Research Online
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Author Biography

George Barna
Web site: Barna Research Online
George Barna is the president of the Barna Research Group, Ltd., a marketing research firm located in Ventura, CA.

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