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    ATHLETES AND NON-ATHLETES

    Are there significant differences at Michigan between athletes and non-athletes in their approach to sports culture? Before answering this question, it may be useful to see what other cultural differences exist between the two groups in our sample. In one question, students were asked to place themselves on a seven-point political viewpoint scale with 1 representing “very liberal” and 7 “very conservative”.[18] The mean for non-athletes is 3.42, and for athletes, 3.91. The difference is statistically significant:

    Liberal / Conservative 1-7 Scale
    Group Mean 95% Confidence Interval Number of Respondents
    Athletes 3.91 3.78–4.04 419
    Non-athletes 3.42 3.29–3.55 409

    The histograms below show that the main difference between the two groups is that more non-athletes place themselves in the moderate liberal category of 3, while more athletes identify themselves in the middle-of-the-road 4 position. The 2002 National Electoral Study yields a national mean on the seven-point scale of 4.35 (this is after the removal of about a seventh of the sample who took an option not available to the students of “don’t know”) which puts both non-athletes and athletes to the left of the nation at large.

    Whole sample

    Non-athletes

    Athletes

    NES sample

    In another seven-point scale question, students were asked about their attitudes towards homosexuality, with 1 denoting “very approving” and 7 “very disapproving”. The difference between the groups was similar to the general political difference; the non-athlete mean is 3.14 and the athlete mean is 3.93.

    Students were also asked “what is your religion”? The major differences here between the groups were that there are more Catholics among the athletes (38.9% to 26.9%) as well as more Protestants (37.4% to 24.7%). There are many more Jews among the non-athletes (22.9% to 5.2%) and marginally more non-athletes professing no religion or Atheism (14.9% to 13.3%).

    Television consumption

    A good starting point for examining the sports culture differences between athletes and non-athletes is their television consumption of sports and sports shows. In our sample, non-athletes watch slightly more sports on television than athletes (5.9 hours to 5.1 hours) but this difference is not statistically significant. If we exclude from the non-athlete sample the students in the sociology of sport class (whom we may expect to watch more sports than average) the athletes watch roughly an hour more than the non-athletes, but once again this difference is not significant.

    Hours of Sports Television Watched Per Week
    Group Mean 95% Confidence Interval Number of Respondents
    Athletes 5.1 4.6–5.7 410
    Non-athletes 5.9 5.1–6.7 394
    Non-athletes (without sociology of sport students) 4.2 3.4–5.0 278

    Students were asked two questions about the specifics of their TV sports consumption: their favorite (not necessarily most watched) sports show and their most preferred genre of sports show (actual events, highlights, opinion, trivia or comedy shows). Here there are substantial differences in taste. The most interesting is the large difference in preferences for highlights shows. 41.9% of athletes list highlights as their favorite genre of sports TV, and a full 86% of athletes listed their favorite sports show as ESPN SportsCenter, the highlights show par excellence. Only 19% of non-athletes list highlights as their favorite genre (16% once the sociology of sport component was removed). Both groups have actual events as the overall favorite, but non-athletes in much larger numbers (56% to 44%, 53% to 44% once the sociology of sport component is removed). Far fewer non-athletes list SportsCenter as their favorite show (51%), though this may be because many took a “none of the above” option which was unavailable to athletes (about 25%). When these answers were removed, preference for SportsCenter is 67% among non-athletes.

    Occasionally, one hears the argument that ESPN has changed the way sports are played. The prevalence of the highlights reel, it is argued, with its attention on the splashy and spectacular such as home runs and slam dunks, has induced athletes to pursue ever-flashier “highlight reel” material at the expense of fundamentals such as jump shots and sacrifice bunts. Our results cannot tell us whether this argument is correct, but they do show us that highlights shows are preferred by athletes at a much higher rate than among the general student population. One only need watch ESPN itself to find anecdotal evidence of this. In the summer of 2005, for example, commercials for EA Sports NCAA 2006 Football featured a monologue by an aspiring college football star that ended with the remark “Hello highlights reel. Hello Heisman”.[19] In a televised pool game of the 2005 Little League World Series, ESPN microphones captured a pep talk given by the coach of the Owensboro, Kentucky team, who fired up his eleven year-old players with the comment “that’s how you get on the ESPN highlights.”[20]

    Favorite teams and players

    Several questions probed different areas of students’ enjoyment of sports. Students were asked their current favorite player, current favorite team, and favorite player through childhood. Answers were coded according to the sport named. Overall, 62.1% of respondents listed their favorite teams and players in the same sport, 53.5% indicate their favorite team and favorite player through childhood in the same sport, and 46.6% mark their favorite team and favorite player through childhood in a different sport. There is little difference between athletes and non-athletes concerning these questions. Interestingly, despite the fact that there were no football players in the sample, football teams are the most frequently named by athletes as their favorites, with 26.4%.

    Students’ specific responses about their favorite players and athletes inevitably reflect their time and place. The responses to favorite teams among students at an institution of higher learning in the state of Michigan and in the Detroit vicinity to boot clearly featured Detroit-based teams, with the Red Wings as decisive favorites, reflecting hockey’s privileged status in the state of Michigan. It must be remembered, though, that this survey was conducted before the Pistons’ 2004 championship, and it might be expected that the Pistons would make gains on the dormant Red Wings in a survey conducted in 2005. The leading non-Detroit teams are the Chicago Cubs, which reflects that team’s generally widespread national appeal as well as a Midwestern regional bias; and the LA Lakers, who gathered an impressive national fan base during the period of the O’Neal / Bryant / Jackson three-peat championship dominance of 2000–2002. Please note that students were not allowed to respond with University of Michigan teams as their favorites, though they were free to choose other university teams:

    Favorite Team
    Rank Team % of Respondents to this Question
    1 Detroit Red Wings 21.32
    2 Detroit Pistons 7.72
    3 Chicago Cubs 4.60
    3 LA Lakers 4.60
    5 Detroit Lions 3.68
    6 New York Yankees 3.13
    7 Detroit Tigers 2.39
    8 New York Giants 2.21
    9 Pittsburgh Steelers 1.84
    10 Green Bay Packers 1.65
    10 Boston Red Sox 1.65
    12 Miami Dolphins 1.47
    12 Michigan State University 1.47
    13 San Francisco 49ers 1.29
    14 Atlanta Braves 1.10
    14 Cleveland Browns 1.10
    14 Denver Broncos 1.10
    14 Duke Basketball 1.10
    14 New York Knicks 1.10
    14 Sacramento Kings 1.10

    The list of favorite contemporary players is largely also a mix of Michigan parochialism and temporal success, but there are some interesting exceptions. Michael Jordan, by the time of the survey’s being administered in the final year of his career with the Washington Wizards, retained the loyalty of a remarkable number of students, and despite no longer being the dominant force he once had been, he was still the favorite contemporary player of more respondents than were Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson or Shaquille O’Neal. After the Red Wings’ icon Steve Yzerman, the next four favorite athletes all play basketball—which makes Jordan’s continuing position of dominance all the more impressive. Probably the most glamorous player in all of international sports, David Beckham (then of Manchester United, subsequently of Real Madrid, and currently of the Los Angeles Galaxy) is ranked eighth, above Derek Jeter or Barry Bonds. It is open to question how much of Beckham’s popularity is due to his towering soccer presence (he is regarded by some as the best English player in a generation) and how much is due to his high visibility in other channels of celebrity publicity. The highest-ranking women are Mia Hamm and Annika Sorenstam, both at 15. The highest-ranking Michigan alumni are Tom Brady (6), Chris Webber (10) and Charles Woodson (15).

    Favorite Current Player
    Rank Player % of Respondents Who Answered This Question
    1 Steve Yzerman 9.56
    2 Michael Jordan 4.22
    3 Kobe Bryant 3.56
    3 Allen Iverson 3.56
    5 Ben Wallace 3.33
    6 Tom Brady 2.22
    7 Brett Favre 2.00
    8 David Beckham 1.78
    8 Joey Harrington 1.78
    10 Chris Webber 1.56
    10 Derek Jeter 1.56
    10 Pete Sampras 1.56
    13 Andre Agassi 1.33
    13 Tracy McGrady 1.33
    15 Barry Bonds 1.11
    15 Nomar Garciaparra 1.11
    15 Mia Hamm 1.11
    15 Mario Lemieux 1.11
    15 Joe Sakic 1.11
    15 Annika Sorenstam 1.11
    15 Charles Woodson 1.11

    The list of favorite players from childhood sees Jordan clearly entrenched at the top. Jordan’s epochal dominance of the NBA made him the childhood favorite of nearly a quarter of all who could name a childhood favorite, including 23% of all athletes. Detroit sporting identities feature prominently in this list, with Barry Sanders (2), Steve Yzerman (3), Isaiah Thomas (4), Cecil Fielder (6), Grant Hill (8) and Allen Trammell (10) all making the list. The presence of Steffi Graf at number 7 is largely due to her status as the unanimous favorite of the women’s tennis team—no other player, not even Jordan for men’s basketball or Yzerman for men’s hockey, was the childhood favorite of an entire varsity program in this way. Interestingly, more respondents were able to name a childhood favorite than a contemporary favorite (62% to 53%).

    Favorite Childhood Player
    Rank Player % of Respondents Who Answered This Question
    1 Michael Jordan 24.52
    2 Barry Sanders 4.98
    3 Steve Yzerman 4.41
    4 Isaiah Thomas 2.68
    5 Wayne Gretzky 2.11
    6 Cecil Fielder 1.92
    7 Steffi Graf 1.53
    8 Chris Webber 1.34
    8 Grant Hill 1.34
    10 Roger Clemens 1.15
    10 Dan Marino 1.15
    10 Alan Trammell 1.15

    All of these responses allow us to make some interesting observations about how identity with a favorite team is formed. From our survey, we can identify three potential factors that may influence team favoritism. Two of these are the favorite player categories featured in the previous two tables. The other is geography.

    The method by which we try to determine the relative significance of these factors requires some explanation, and it is important not to overstate the claims we are actually able to make. As most of the favorite players selected were in team sports, we were able to code each of these players as a “team” and then see if they matched the team given as the respondent’s favorite. As players move from team to team, this naturally required some care—the player’s record had to be carefully inspected to see whether he/she had played for the respondent’s team during the period of their childhood, or during 2002/03 when the survey was administered. This brings a host of problems: players may have switched teams in 2001, or played only for a very short period during the respondent’s childhood, making it difficult to determine if “agreement” really exists between favorite team and athlete. This problem was mitigated, however, by the fact that most of the players named (especially as childhood favorites) were big-name athletes and were obvious long-term “fixtures” in a certain place. Just because a favorite athlete plays for a favorite team, we cannot claim to say that the respondent supports that team because of that player, or favors that player because of that team. However, we can show a probable connection between the two. By comparing the rates of “agreement” between teams and childhood favorites, and teams and current favorites, we can begin to build a case about which is the stronger connection, and stronger influence on sporting loyalties.

    The other factor, geography, was more difficult to assess precisely because students named only a region in which their hometown was located (Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest), and so the only “agreement” we could ascertain is whether the respondent’s favorite team is in the same geographic region. We were able to give this more precision for much of the sample by creating a new region for all Michigan residents who listed the Midwest as their home region, and so almost certainly were native Michiganders. This group is about 44% of the total sample. Where hometown region and team region agree, we may venture a good guess that there is a connection between the two. There are many possible causal mechanisms linking team region to hometown region. A Cubs fan may be a Cubs fan out of a deep local identification with the north side of Chicago; or she may have gravitated to them as a nearby Major League powerhouse to her hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana; or he may even have started supporting the Cubs as a daring but all the more decisive act of rebellion against the prevailing culture in his hometown of St Louis. We do not have any data to suggest which of these causal mechanisms is at work, but we can suggest that there is a connection.

    So, which of these three connections is the strongest? There is a clear, statistically significant ordering of the three connections: the strongest is between team and region, the next strongest is between favorite current player and region, and the weakest is between team and favorite childhood player:

    Team and Region/Player Connections
    Agreement Percentage Agreed 99% Confidence Interval Number of Respondents
    Team and region 66.8 62.7–70.9 518
    Team and favorite current player 46.0 41.0–50.1 387
    Team and favorite childhood player 29.0 24.7–33.3 424

    All three connections are weaker for athletes than for non-athletes:

    Team and Region/Player Connections: Athletes
    Agreement Percentage Agreed 99% Confidence Interval Number of Respondents
    Team and region 59.5 53.3–65.6 271
    Team and favorite current player 38.3 31.4–45.3 193
    Team and favorite childhood player 25.6 19.6–31.7 193

    Team and Region/Player Connections: Non-athletes
    Agreement Percentage Agreed 99% Confidence Interval Number of Respondents
    Team and region 73.4 68.1–78.7 271
    Team and favorite current player 53.6 46.5–60.7 194
    Team and favorite childhood player 32.1 25.9–38.3 221

    The difference is not statistically significant in the “team and favorite childhood player category”. What do the apparently weaker bonds in the other two categories tell us? It seems reasonable that an athlete may favor teams or players for different reasons from non-athletes, and that such factors as geographic loyalty may play less of a role because other factors, such as admiration of a certain technique or style of play may be present. Moreover, it seems likely that this particular difference between athletes and the rest of the population would be least pronounced in childhood, when on the one hand, more children than adults harbor dreams of becoming a professional athlete, and on the other hand, child athletes are less likely than adults to be fully conscious of the multitude of factors that make a great athlete or a great team.