Study draws connections between sports fandom, political tribalism

shutdownWhat do Super Bowls and elections have in common? They both have fans.

According to research co-authored by Megan Duncan, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, “fans of sports teams and supporters of a political parties perceive news much in the same way.”

The study published in Newspaper Research Journal found fans viewed stories accusing their team of wrongdoing as biased, even if they perceived the source as credible. Authors of the paper included Michael Mirer of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Michael Wagner of University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Duncan of Virginia Tech.

The study was inspired in part by the “Deflategate” scandal which resulted in a 4-game suspension of Tom Brady that was later rescinded by a judge. This story led researchers to design a study examining how news source credibility is viewed and the varying degrees of bias hidden in how information is presented.

So they they showed a couple of news stories to fans (and rivals) of the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers on three different websites: USA Today, and

The basis for the story: one team accuses the other of violating the NFL’s anti-tampering policy, or trying to steal the other team’s player under contract. A violation of this policy is punishable by eliminating draft picks or issuing hefty fines.

Results showed fans of a team rated stories as more biased when their team is accused of wrongdoing, than when it is doing the accusing, especially when the story was on the rival teams website. But Duncan believes there there is more to this finding than just die hard loyal fandom.

“Sports fandom operates much in the same way as political partisanships,” said Duncan. “When we looked at reactions to stories on and they operated much in the same way you would expect reactions from far left or far right news organizations. People saw more bias when when their team was under attack. Democrats and Republicans operate much in the same way.”

The study also found independent media sources, like USA Today, were rated as significantly more credible than anything shown on or, suggesting that fans could still recognize the value of independent journalism over cheerleader journalism.

“Social identity theory also helps explain what is happening here.” said Duncan. “The theory says that individuals filter new information through the lens of group affiliation, relying on it as a mental shortcut to help make decisions. Once it becomes part of their identity, it is a powerful motivator. Partisans, too, use their group identification to make judgments when faced with controversies.”

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