When asked which of a list of popular U.S. professional sports they most associate with negative moral values, football (52 percent) is America’s top selection by a nearly two-to-one margin over basketball (28 percent), the next most cited sport. Boxing (25 percent) and wrestling (23 percent) round out the second tier.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,016 adults surveyed online between September 29 and October 1, 2014. (Full results, including data tables, available here)

Americans 55 and over (59 percent ages 55-64, 60 percent ages 65+) are more likely than those 18-54 (45 percent ages 18-34, 51 percent ages 35-44, 48 percent ages 45-54) to cite football as among the pro sports they most associate with negative moral values, but it’s perhaps more important to recognize that football is the number one response-by a wide margin-across all age groups. Meanwhile, gender lines prove to be no line at all, with 51 percent of men and 53 percent of women pointing to pro football. What’s more, interest in pro football makes little difference in this perception, with 51 percent of those who follow it and 53 percent of those who dont expressing the same sentiment.

Further down the list, 14 percent of U.S. adults select baseball as one of the pro sports they most associate with negative moral values, while 13 percent point to hockey, 12 percent identify mixed martial arts and 9 percent cite auto racing. Very few single out golf (3 percent), soccer (2 percent) or tennis (1 percent), while 16 percent say they dont associate any U.S. professional sports with negative moral values.

It’s not all bad

On the bright side, many Americans do have sports they associate with positive moral values. 23 percent each point to pro tennis and golf, while 22 percent select baseball. Meanwhile, just over one in ten cite pro soccer (13 percent), pro football (13 percent), mixed martial arts (11 percent), and pro basketball (11 percent) while just under one in ten point to auto racing (9 percent) and hockey (7 percent). That said, a third of Americans (33 percent) dont associate any U.S. professional sports with positive moral values-a sentiment that comes in strongest from women (36 percent, vs. 29 percent of men) and Americans ages 35+ (36 percent ages 35-54, 42 percent ages 55-64 and 37 percent ages 65+ vs. 20 percent among those ages 18-34).

Who’s got the ball?

When asked which parties should be held responsible for enforcing moral standards within professional sports in the U.S., nearly two thirds of Americans look to the players/athletes (66 percent), the overall organizing or governing body for each sport (66 percent) and the team owners (65 percent), while over half point to the coaches (56 percent). One third of Americans call out the sponsors (32 percent), while one fourth say the fans should be held responsible (24 percent).

The 65-and-older set is more likely than their younger counterparts to look to the overall organizing or governing body for the sport (77 percent ages 65+ vs. 68 percent ages 55-64, 63 percent ages 35-54 and 60 percent ages 18-34) and the team owners (72 percent vs. 66 percent, 64 percent and 61 percent, respectively) as parties who should be held responsible.

18-34 year olds, on the other hand, are more likely than their older counterparts to point a finger at the fans (31 percent ages 18-34 vs. 24 percent ages 35-44, 18 percent ages 45-54, 24 percent ages 55-64, 19 percent ages 65+).

Unfavorable comparisons

Two-thirds of Americans say the overall level of morality in professional sports today is worse than the level of morality seen in professional sports 10 years ago (67 percent). Nearly two-thirds say the same when comparing today’s level of morality to that displayed in professional sports 50 years ago, with 65 percent saying it is worse today and over four in ten (43 percent) specifying that it is a great deal worse.

The current state of pro sports also fares poorly against its scholastic counterparts, with nearly two-thirds saying it’s worse than the level of morality seen in college athletics (64 percent), and over half saying it’s worse than the level seen in high school athletics (57 percent).

Stepping into other areas of public life, just over two-thirds say the overall level of morality in professional sports today is worse than the levels seen among U.S. politicians and among celebrities in general (68 percent each).

The bottom line

Ultimately, Americans are somewhat split on whether pro athletes should be held to higher legal standards than average citizens, with 55 percent believing they should and 45 percent disagreeing with this.

Only a third of U.S. adults feel public figures in sports are setting a good example for children (32 percent), with 18-34 year olds most likely to agree with this sentiment while the 65 and older set is least likely to do so (46 percent ages 18-34, 31 percent ages 35-44, 29 percent ages 45-54, 27 percent ages 55-64, 20 percent ages 65+).

Meanwhile, a small but troubling percentage of Americans (17 percent) indicate that they dont care what happens off-field, as long as their team wins.

In the end, professional sports are businesses; as their consumers, fans do have some measure of power. Three-fourths of Americans (74 percent) believe fans who disapprove of actions by the governing body of a sport should “vote with their eyeballs” by not watching it. So-with so many Americans having a low opinion of the moral values on display in pro football, and such a strong majority saying fans should opt out if they dont approve of what theyre seeing, surely football interest and viewership must be experiencing a downturn. Except that it isnt-the 55 percent of Americans who say they follow pro football is on par with the 54 percent who said the same last year, and TV viewership is up this season.


This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between September 29 and October 1, 2014 among 2,016 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents propensity to be online.