NFL fan behavior could reflect implicit bias


The National Football League arguably is America’s most popular sport. But among its fan base, it is also the sport most biased against the over three-fourths of its players who are Black.

This began in 2016 after QB Colin Kaepernick and others began protesting police brutality and social and economic inequity among Blacks and other people of color in the U.S., which sparked a backlash among fans and others because it was done during the national anthem. Kaepernick later was whiteballed from the league. 

According to Nielsen, NFL attendance and viewership was down, depending on the age group, by as much as 20%. There was a 20% drop among Black women age 18-3, but only 2-3% among men and women age 55 and older. White females 18-34 showed the largest drop (19%) and the lowest among men and women age 55 and older (8%).

This columnist also joined activist Shaun King’s 2017 call for a national NFL boycott to not attend games in person or watch them on television, including those “damn highlights,” in his words. It’s now been three years and counting. 

Yet Blacks largely still remain pro-football fans—66% according to a 2019 The poll of Black NFL fans. Statista’s March report on sports fans by ethnicity says Blacks overall are more “avid fans” (34%) and “causal fans” (41%) of sports than Whites (28% avid, 37% casual). 

But does a racial divide exist considering that Whites make up 70% of the NFL fan base and television viewers? This prompted Texas A&M Sport Management Professor George Cunningham and South Carolina Sports Economist Professor Nicholas Watanable to jointly study if racial bias affected NFL game attendance and television viewership. They released their study results earlier this year, finding that the NFL protest did not cause a significant dip in attendance. 

“We didn’t assess patriotism. We do know that implicit bias went up and attendance went down over the time frame of the study,” Cunningham said in an MSR phone interview. “It could be a patriotic element to it, but some of the other data suggest that there could be a racial element, and racial attitudes could influence things as well.”

Implicit bias is real, but not everyone readily admits it. Even “well intentioned and fair-minded people” aren’t aware of their implicit bias, Cunningham added. “People have done it for a long time.

“We express bias in ways that we really don’t know that we are doing it,” he explained. “A lot of people don’t think about racism and sexism or other forms of prejudice unless it is explicit in nature.

“Some people say [implicit] bias is a habit,” the professor said, suggesting that people need to be intentional and work on dealing with it daily. It’s more than a one-day implicit bias training session, “but it requires that training plus following it up and being intentional about it in your life and your actions toward others,” he noted.

“Whether you are a football fan, policymaker, or you are just interacting with your friends and loved ones, implicit bias can influence how you engage with others. To be aware of that and try to reduce that bias would be helpful.”