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Just In Time For The Super Bowl

Just in time for the Super Bowl, the Public Religion Research Institute has released an opinion survey on… well, it’s not really about the role of religion in sports, or about the religiosity of sports fans, or about how important religion and sports are to people, or much of anything organized (although in part it is about each of those things). Some of the questions seem to hold together, but others give the feel of “hey, let’s ask this, too!” The complete list of questions, with broad percentage answers, is here.

The headline-grabber report is from question 8 of the survey–actually, from 2 out of 3 of question 8’s three questions (which were presented in randomized order). “Nearly 3-in-10 Americans Say God Plays a Role in Outcomes of Sports Events” blares the headline, which was apparently more interesting than the associated finding that “majorities of all religious groups disagree that God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event…”. Far more (indeed, an overall majority) report agreement with the statement “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.”

Those two questions were 2/3 of question 8. The other third gets shuffled to the very end of the press release, and is not included in the bar chart with the other two. It innocently asks whether you agree that “Public high schools should be allowed to sponsor prayer before football games”. Why it was lumped in with the other parts of question 8 is not explained. It’s a bit odd, especially considering that there are other questions not included in the randomized portion, asking about the athletes’ displays of faith during sporting events (imo, a much better match for the high school prayer question, even though their displays are personal and the prayer would be a state-sponsored declaration). (I suspect you know where I stand on that last one…)

One strange thing in the press release:

More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) Americans say they consider themselves a fan of a particular sports team. However, among these self-identified sports fans, less than 1-in-5 report that being a fan of their favorite team is the most important thing (1 percent) or a very important thing (14 percent) in their lives. Roughly 4-in-10 (42 percent) say that being a fan of is somewhat important, while more than 4-in-10 (43 percent) say it is not too important or not at all important.
By contrast, 58 percent of Americans say that religion is the most or a very important thing in their lives, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) say it is somewhat important, and only 18 percent say it is not too important or not at all important.

You methodology wonks who actually read the survey will immediately note… the survey did not ask about the importance of religion in their lives. I have no idea where they got that information–whether it was from this survey but unreported, whether it was from a different sample, whether it was from a survey with a vastly different methodology… we are not told. Hell, we aren’t even told that they didn’t ask.

The survey is relatively benign–the questions themselves are not terribly leading, compared with some of the political push-polling I’ve responded to. But that does not mean there are no problems with methodology. For instance, some 47% of respondents report that on any given Sunday, they will be at church (either church and no football, or both church and football). This is higher than the roughly 40% that polls usually find… and that 40% is more than double the numbers that actually are at church on a given Sunday. When it comes to telling pollsters you are a good Christian, it doesn’t hurt to bear false witness just a bit.

So, anyway, maybe the numbers about whether people feel god makes a difference in the game are good numbers, but if so, they are keeping very bad company.

They called up my number; I answered the phone
They wanted my data; I threw them a bone
“Do athletes and teams win their games on their own,
Or is God on the side of the winners?”
The answer I gave must have seemed well-rehearsed;
Cos you see, I’m a fan, but my team is the worst,
So my view of the bastards who end up in first
Is, they must have been Satan’s own sinners!

The Ravens are Lucifer’s darling delight
And the Niners are willing to put up a fight
So they’re making a deal with the devil tonight
And Jehovah has gone into hiding!
So, you see that your question’s a little bit odd
The game doesn’t show us who’s favored of God–
When the team sells their souls for the sake of their squad
Then it’s Satan who does the deciding!

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