It’s all about my “team”: what we can learn about politics from sport

Dr Natalie Brown-Devlin

Assistant Professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Texas at Austin. Her primary research interests include social identity, crisis communication, and digital media, primarily in the context of sport.

Dr Michael Devlin

Associate Professor in School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University. He is also the Chair of the International Communication Association Sport Communication Interest Group. His work examines the intersection of sport, advertising, and social identity.

Section 6: Popular culture and public critique

Modern politics in the United States has seemingly become akin to sport, as Americans affiliate themselves with the red/Republican or blue/Democrat team. This shift is illustrated in the rise of Trumpism, as his supporters fly Trump flags, attend rallies similar to sporting events, and wear branded merchandise showcasing attachment to a person and brand. Succinctly stated, politics in 2020 have ascended to fandom above policy, and sport can help ascertain what this could mean for democracy moving forward.

Sport communication scholars often examine fan behavior through the concept of team identification, explained by Daniel Wann as an emotional connection to a team where their performances become self-relevant. Essentially, team wins feel like personal victories, leading one to Bask-In-Reflected-Glory (BIRG), and team losses feel like personal defeats, leading one to Cut-Off-Reflected-Failure (CORF). Sport communication literature provides evidence that those who are highly identified with their team are more likely to BIRG during their teams’ success and less likely to CORF after losses. Unlike any U.S. President in modern history, President Trump has turned politics into sport, complete with blind and unadulterated fandom.

So what can we learn about the 2020 election from sport fandom? First, let’s consider the role of cognitive dissonance and identity protection. Looking back to 2014, Devlin and Billings conducted a longitudinal analysis of highly identified USMNT fans during the 2014 World Cup. As the tournament progressed, the team failed to meet (unrealistic) expectations, resulting in decreased nationalism, or the belief that your country is better than another country, and smugness, the belief that your country is superior to all countries attitudes among a national sample. Interestingly, once the USMNT was eliminated from the tournament, smugness scores increased to their highest level, indicating highly identified fans not only refused to CORF, but instead, doubled-down and declared themselves the best despite evidence to the contrary.

We are witnessing a similar effect occurring with political identity. For highly identified Trump fans, the electoral loss poses a personal identity threat that must be mitigated accordingly. Therefore, denying the election results and refusing to concede provides psychological insulation from the loss. Rationale for this can also be explained by social psychological findings suggesting a success/failure attributional bias exists, which helps internalize success and externalize failure. Sport communication research has found that one’s degree of team identification is major predictor for attributing a loss to external forces such as referees and opponents’ cheating, resulting in denial of the outcome, or worse, behaviors such as increased aggression. Leon Mann noted that when supporters of opposing teams were asked to recap a game, it seemed they witnessed two completely different events. Supporters of the losing team overestimated objective and measurable events, such as free kicks given to the opponent, and attributing the loss to external factors and dirty play rather than admitting their team’s poor performance.

This research mirrors what we are currently witnessing from Trump, who seems unable to internalize the electoral defeat, and instead, has refused to concede and is trying to cast doubt on the integrity of electoral process through unfounded claims of fraud, cheating, and subsequent lawsuits holding no merit. His fans are levying similar claims on various social media platforms while feeling spurned by certain platforms’ attempts at fact-checking their election claims.

With reports that Trump hopes to continue contesting the election result with lawsuits and additional rallies, highly identified Trump supporters will continue to echo his claims. However, it is important to note that identification occurs on a spectrum, and not all supporters are highly identified (even if those highly identified supporters are the “loudest” on social media). Unfortunately, highly identified supporters are more likely to believe misinformation that confirms their in-group beliefs (political identity hypothesis) and form false memories of events. Additionally, those of populist leanings will continue to view the mainstream media as hostile toward their beliefs.

While seemingly grim, there is one predictive insight to be gleaned if modern politics continues to mirror sport: a return to normalcy. Communication scholars have noted inconsistent findings regarding attributional bias, arguing that a responsibility norm exists for individuals to eventually accept a loss. Recently, research suggests the aforementioned bias phenomena was weaker among less identified fans, which is notable considering not all Trump voters are necessarily highly-identified supporters. Like sports fans, as more begin to believe that the game is truly over, Trump supporters will shift their attention to next season.

Granted, in sport, there are no pep rallies after a defeat, no emails to fans requesting donations to contest the results, and no communication strategies intended to cast doubt on a final score. So, it remains to be seen how highly identified Trump supporters will react if Trump continues to dominate headlines and if the mainstream media continues providing attention surrounding rallies, misinformation, and lawsuit filings.

Should the campaign continue to lose in court and should the media shift their attention away from Trump, Devlin and Billings’ work lends empirical evidence to a popular saying that “time heals all wounds.” Perhaps a similar pattern will emerge once the sensationalism of the election declines and the media ceases to give attention to former President Donald Trump.