By Aaron Earls
Thanks to wild buzzer beaters and unbelievable upsets, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has become known as March Madness. For most Americans, however, their attitude toward sports is more mild than mad.
A new study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research found 52 percent of Americans describe their philosophy of sports by saying, “It’s not whether you win or lose—it’s how you play the game.”
“Most Americans want players to play the game ‘the right way’ and not potentially endanger others simply for the sake of winning,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “For example, with growing worries about concussions in football, safety concerns have caused many to reconsider their attitude toward sports.”
Another 40 percent of Americans go beyond sportsmanship within the game to place sports in a broader perspective. They say, “It’s only a game.”
“For more than 9 in 10 Americans, winning takes a back seat,” said McConnell. “They believe there’s more to sports and more to life than achieving victory on the field or court.”
The Lifeway Research survey asked 1,000 Americans to choose which statement best describes their philosophy of sports:
- Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.
- If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying.
- It’s not whether you win or lose—it’s how you play the game.
- It’s only a game.
Relatively few Americans say their sports philosophy is focused on winning. Only 7 percent follow the sentiments popularized by legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”
Fewer than 1 percent say when it comes to sports, “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying.”
McConnell said the win-at-all-costs attitude doesn’t resonate with most. “Americans see sports as a way to develop character,” he said. “They want children and young players to gain something from athletics beyond merely a drive to win.”
While most seem to want good sportsmanship between competitors, half of the country doesn’t see it take place.
According to another part of the Lifeway Research study, the nation is evenly split on whether good sportsmanship is rarely exhibited in American sports today: 50 percent agree and 50 percent disagree.
“Our culture sends a mixed message with sports. We say we want good sportsmanship, but our attitudes and actions don’t always reflect that,” said McConnell. “We may recognize the player who was a great teammate and good sport, but we revere the player who wins.”
Young adults don’t want participation trophies
While millennials are often noted for growing up in a time when everyone is recognized for effort and not for achievement, young adults are most likely to reject that mindset. Among adults 18-34, 15 percent say, “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.” That’s more than three times as many as adults 35 and older (4 percent). “Everyone has probably heard that phrase,” said McConnell, “but millennials are most likely to believe it.”
He also noted adults in that age range are more likely to still be actively participating in sports, which may influence their drive to win. “While only 7 percent of the country believes winning is the most important thing, that number would probably be higher if you asked those in the heat of the competition,” said McConnell.
Younger millennials are also least likely to say good sportsmanship is rare today. Only 37 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds believe sportsmanship is missing compared to 51 percent of all other Americans.
Region and religion are also factors
The South is one of the most competitive regions in the country. While 58 percent of those in the West say, “It’s not whether you win or lose—it’s how you play the game,” 50 percent of Southerners agree.
Those in the South (11 percent) are also more likely to say, “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing,” than those in the Midwest (5 percent) and West (5 percent).
“With the prominence of sports in general, it’s not surprising to see some say winning is the only thing that matters,” said McConnell. “When your personal identity is wrapped up in your team, you may want to win at all costs.”
Religious identification, beliefs and practice also provide different viewpoints on athletics. The nonreligious (46 percent) are more likely than Christians (37 percent) to say, “It’s only a game.”
Those with evangelical beliefs, as defined by the Lifeway Research and National Association of Evangelicals’ four-part definition, are less likely to believe “it’s only a game” (32 percent) than those without evangelical beliefs (42 percent).
Those who attend religious services once a month or more (59 percent) are more likely to say how the game is played is more important than those who attend less than once a month (49 percent).
Frequent church attenders (33 percent) are also less likely to think sports are “only a game,” compared to those who attend less frequently (44 percent).
“Those who push back against the culturally accepted idea of religious identification and church attendance also have a tendency to push back against the American obsession with sports,” said McConnell.
Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
Lifeway Research conducted the study Sept. 27 – Oct. 1, 2016. The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. People in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, GfK provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection.
Sample stratification and weights were used for gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, metro/non-metro, education, and income to reflect the most recent U.S. Census data. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.