Across the world, sports have often been a crucial part of national identity. In the U.S., in particular, the National Football League thrives off of its status as a cultural backbone.
Like any cornerstone of cultural identity, however, the NFL hasn’t been free from controversy. While marginalized populations continue to fight inequality and exclusion in American society, portions of that struggle have spilled into the NFL as well.

Key Takeaways

  • Among fans of the Big Five pro sports leagues in the U.S., the MLS is thought to be the most supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • In 2020, many NFL teams and pro sports leagues sharply adjusted their messaging in support of diversity and inclusion, leading to spikes in pro-LGBTQ+ tweets.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the highest rate of pro-LGBTQ+ comments and posts in online forums.
  • A strong majority of NFL fans are calling for change: 61% believe the overall league needs to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ athletes, and 55% want their team to be more inclusive.

LGBTQ+ populations have a well-documented history of facing discrimination in the context of sports. The concrete consequences of such prejudice continue to shake up the league to this day: Only a few months after Carl Nassib—a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders—became the first openly gay active NFL player earlier this year, the head coach of the same team resigned after being exposed for making misogynistic and homophobic comments in emails. Clearly, the intersection of LGBTQ+ issues and the NFL is as important now as ever.

Using survey data, posts from official accounts, and team chat forums, this article assesses the degree and distribution of LGBTQ+ support across the Big Five sports leagues, the NFL itself, individual NFL teams, and NFL fandoms.

Interleague LGBTQ+ Support: Perception vs. Reality

Since the concept of “support” is relatively abstract, there isn’t a clear-cut method of determining just how pro-LGBTQ+ the NFL and the NFL fandom are. What’s more, the supportive behavior we expect from individual fans might be very different from what the public expects from a larger entity like a league or team. Therefore, for the purposes of this study, we synthesized information from several sources on fan behavior and team/league support alike.

In terms of gauging the support of sports fans on a general scale, public opinion is an acceptable variable for measuring LGBTQ+ support in the NFL.

More specifically, survey data collected from 1,000 sports fans in the U.S. indicates to what degree the NFL, along with the other Big Five sports leagues, is supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.

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The data reveals that, when compared to the other Big Five professional sports leagues, the NFL is nearly tied for the title of ‘least supportive pro sports league’ with the MLB. Both leagues are perceived as ‘very supportive’ by 37% of fans, as compared to the 56% figure for the MLS in the same category. So, if: (1) perception accurately portrays reality in this case and (2) the NFL is truly committed to maintaining an equitable work environment, it’s fair to say that the league can do more to support LGBTQ+ people fully.

Interestingly enough, LGBTQ+ fans were actually slightly more likely to view their favorite leagues as supportive than non-LGBTQ+ fans: On average, LGBTQ+ fans of the Big Five leagues were about 15 percentage points more likely than other fans to view their respective league as “very supportive” or “extremely supportive.”

The survey data also reveals that the NFL may be wise to heed the will of inclusion-loving sports fans: When respondents were asked how important it is for sports leagues to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, 48% responded that it’s very important to do so. These inclusion advocates outnumbered those who believed it’s “not at all important” for sports leagues to show their support by more than three to one.

A Closer Look: Who’s Really Talking the Talk?

In addition to evaluating the opinions of sports fans, this study incorporates a sports league’s number of LGBTQ+-supportive tweets as a measure of that league’s public support for such causes.

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As it turns out, the NFL tweet numbers reflect a PR reality that differs from insights taken from the public opinion survey data: Interestingly enough, compared to the other four leagues, the NFL has tweeted the second-most support for LGBTQ+ communities this past year, with 13 supportive tweets so far in 2021. Furthermore, as can be seen from the dramatic spike in the trendline after 2019, both the NFL and even the NHL dramatically increased their LGBTQ+ messaging on Twitter.

So, public opinion isn’t baseless, but it’s clear that in this case, there are some significant differences between fans’ perceptions of leagues’ LGBTQ+ support and the PR efforts seen on Twitter. It wouldn’t be a stretch, though, to say that the NHL’s PR presence perhaps partly contributed to its standing as the second-most supportive league for respondents. The NHL has tweeted the most support for LGBTQ+ issues since 2012, with 42 total. Given this information, the perception that the NHL is the second-most supportive league of the Big Five seems to add up to some extent.

Having seen the recent spike in tweeted support from the NFL’s official Twitter account, we were also interested to see which individual NFL teams have followed the lead: According to 61 tweets from NFL teams over the past ten years, a handful of teams stand above the rest in their public support for the LGBTQ+ community. As it stands, the San Francisco 49ers beat out the rest of the league, having posted 10 specifically LGBTQ+-supportive tweets since 2012. The runner-ups were the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens.

Outside of tweets specifically addressing the LGBTQ+ community, we found that many teams in the NFL have sharply increased their public messaging surrounding various diversity and equity issues over the past two years. These findings may not necessarily be indicative of what’s to come, but if trends continue, it appears that some degree of social change is on the horizon for the NFL.

Off the Field and Into the Forums

It certainly isn’t a stretch to say that NFL fans are an extension of the league. Fandoms carry and communicate the ethos of their teams off the field, and where the scrutiny of the press and the general public does not apply, fans often speak their mind about their teams. Online forums such as Reddit, where fans gather to speak amongst themselves, can provide unique insights into the attitudes and opinions of fan bases.

In addition to the discourse in the leagues and organizations themselves, this study analyzes online fanspeak. More specifically, this study determines a fandom’s positivity score, using 6,705 posts and comments in NFL subreddits to do so.

For the purposes of the study, the positivity score of a given fandom is determined by the proportion of posts that are defined as positive. These posts are also relatively recent, as they date from 2020 to 2021.

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The data reveals that most fandoms generally do not speak favorably about LGBTQ+ issues in online spaces. Only the top six teams in this dataset – so nearly 19% of all NFL fandoms – have positivity scores above 50%.

As far as how exactly these fandoms placed in the data, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the top three most positive fandoms. The Los Angeles Rams, the Carolina Panthers, and the Atlanta Falcons occupy the opposite end of the data set.

As it turns out, the data suggests that sports fans don’t seem to necessarily be directly aligned with the degree of support their team shows for LGBTQ+ issues. While the 49ers and the 49ers fans both shows some of the most support in the league, the Steelers and Dolphins fans seem to be considerably less supportive. Specifically, while the Steelers and Dolphins were among the top four teams in the league for supportive tweet numbers, their associated fandoms are listed in the bottom half of this data set.

Calls for Change

Although the previous data set indicates that most fandoms don’t generally speak positively about LGBTQ+ issues, each fandom still exhibits a significant show of support, with the bottom-most Los Angeles Rams still showing a nearly 30% positivity score.

Seeing as this is the case, it comes as no surprise that a majority of NFL fans are calling for change.

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The survey data indicates that 61% believe that the NFL needs to be more inclusive, while 55% would like their team to be more openly supportive of LGBTQ+ people. Most of these respondents also supported a number of specific initiatives in another survey data set. For instance, 66% of respondents supported adding consequences for homophobic and transphobic behavior to NFL players’ Code of Conduct.

This survey additionally analyzed individual fandoms, using survey data to do so. The data revealed that, for every team that was analyzed (save for the Dallas Cowboys), a majority of fans said they want their team to be more openly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community. The Cowboys were nearly a majority, though, seeing as 48% of fans said they wanted the Cowboys to be more supportive. The fandoms that topped the list for calling for more LGBTQ+ support were the Atlanta Falcons at 71%, the Arizona Cardinals at 69%, and the Carolina Panthers at 64%.

Interestingly enough, when pressed on whether or not athletes and the NFL as an entity are responsible for using their platforms to advocate for LGBTQ+ people, fans were significantly more divided on the issue. The survey data revealed that 44% of respondents believed that athletes do indeed carry this responsibility, while 40% disagreed, and the remainder were unsure.

As for opinions on the NFL’s social responsibility, 49% of fans said they should use their platform for support, 38% disagreed, and the remainder were unsure.

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Questions such as these, which gauge the sincerity and willingness of fans to stand by the LGBTQ+ community are crucial for gauging the relative ‘amount’ of support they are willing to show. Supplementing this data set is survey data proposing a hypothetical scenario and one which has occurred in recent history. Specifically, survey data collected from the same group of 1,000 fans ask how they think their team’s fanbase would react if a player was gay or bisexual. It followed that 7 of the 32 fan bases were perceived to react positively.

Another notable finding was that the New England Patriots were perceived by most respondents to be “very or extremely supportive” of a player being gay or bisexual.

Concluding Thoughts

Generally speaking, LGBTQ+ support across the NFL and its associated fanbases certainly exists and appears to be growing, but the question remains as to what pace. Evaluating LGBTQ+ support becomes more complicated when attempting to determine whether a real and specific change is something we can expect in the near future. However, uncertainties aside, the data clearly demonstrated some conclusions worth noting. If there’s anything you should take from this article, it’s that a majority of NFL fans believe the league needs to be more inclusive and supportive of LGBTQ+ people. It’s also worth keeping in mind that NFL teams have drastically increased their pro-LGBTQ+ tweet numbers since 2019.

It’s no doubt that NFL fans have some of the most engaged and passionate fan bases, no matter the issue at hand. When you’re looking for ways to support your team by grabbing tickets to a game, puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you all the information you need right at your fingertips. All you need to bring to the table is your enthusiasm and passion for live entertainment. If you’re a fan, we’ve got you covered. For more than a decade, TickPick has connected sports and music fans alike with live event seating, focusing on a streamlined purchasing process with no service fees. Having saved customers nearly $60 million, we’re dedicated to getting you the best rate possible.

Methodology and Limitations

In order to gather tweets from major leagues and NFL teams, we searched for tweets from these entities’ official accounts from 2011 until 2021. We included tweets that mentioned any of a list of keywords that suggested a topic relating to LGBTQ+ inclusion, excluding tweets that were mismatched based on confounding variables (e.g., several irrelevant tweets initially matched due to mentioning an athlete with the last name Gay). Examples include broad terms such as “diversity” and “inclusion” as well as more specific keywords such as “LGBTQ” and “pride month.” We manually reviewed tweets and excluded false positives.

To gather posts and comments from Reddit forums, we levied the same strategy on r/NFL and each of the official subreddits for the 32 teams in the league, including posts and comments that matched our keywords and excluding some that were mismatched. We gathered 2,390 posts in total. The average sample of posts and comments for team subreddits was 75 posts. Sentiment analysis was conducted using the VADER natural language processing tool.

To study fans’ perceptions of the inclusion efforts levied by major league sports in the United States, we surveyed 1,000 fans of the MLS, NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB over the age of 18. 33.8% were women, 65.3% were men, and less than 1% were nonbinary, agender, or declined to share their gender. 19% were members of the LGBTQ+ community. To help ensure that all respondents took our survey seriously, they were required to identify and correctly answer two attention-check questions.

Survey responses on Likert scales were grouped sensibly for certain questions. For example, responses on a 5-point scale with options “Much more,” “More,” “Neither less nor more,” “Less,” and “Much less” may have been grouped into a 3-point scale with buckets “More,” “Stay the same,” and “Less” for purposes of presentation. Please also note that survey data has certain limitations related to self-reporting. These limitations include telescoping, exaggeration, and selective memory. We didn’t weigh our data or statistically test our hypothesis.

Featured Image: TickPick
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