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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Erica Scharrer

Second Advisor

Seth K. Goldman

Third Advisor

Weiai Xu

Fourth Advisor

Lisa A. Keller

Subject Categories

Mass Communication


With athletes actively protesting on and off the court, as well as sports organizations embracing activism efforts like Black Lives Matter, the importance of understanding how sports fans respond to athletes engaging in or being associated with politics is increasing, as well. If part of the draw for watching sports and identifying with teams is the potential to increase psychological health, what happens when fans are presented with political viewpoints within sports that they disagree with? This dissertation uses two studies to explore how fans of the New England Patriots responded to reading an article about a rookie Patriots player being associated with a far-right militia group and having objectionable social media posts. First, drawing on moral reasoning, team identification, and social identity theory literatures, when people learn about athlete’s political statements – often through media coverage and social media posts – if they find the political statements objectionable, they may deride the player. However, if people are fans of the player making the objectionable statement, and thus perceive the player as part of their ingroup, they may defend the player. But to defend someone with beliefs they find objectionable, they may have to engage in moral reasoning strategies to rationalize or downplay the beliefs or the player’s association with them. A cross-sectional survey looked at whether fans’ team identification with the Patriots and political ideology influenced how fans responded to an article about a rookie Patriots player being associated with a far-right militia group and having objectionable social media posts. First, they were asked about their team identification. Then, they were asked to read the aforementioned article. Following that, they were asked how much they agree with statements suggesting three different moral reasoning strategies: moral decoupling (separating the player’s abilities on-the-field from his political associations), moral coupling (jointly considering the player’s abilities on-the-field and his political associations), or moral rationalization (downplaying or rationalizing the player’s political associations). Lastly, they answered demographic questions, including political ideology Results showed that as team identification increased, and as political ideology became more conservative, agreement with moral decoupling and moral rationalization increased, while there was no relationship between team identification and moral coupling. However, political ideology moderated the relationship between team identification and moral decoupling and rationalization; as ideology became more conservative, the relationship between team identification and moral decoupling and rationalization weakened. So, for die-hard Patriots fans, liberal and conservatives equally morally decoupled or rationalized, whereas for slight fans, conservatives were significantly more likely to decouple and rationalize than liberals. The second study, using a new sample, additionally drew on the Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model (TI-SPHM, Wann, 2006b) and positive media psychology literature which suggests that identifying as part of a team contributes to well-being. And, when faced with a threat to that group’s identity, members’ well-being may decrease. This will result in people engaging in coping strategies to restore that well-being. The second study here examined if being primed with one of the moral reasoning conditions would influence fans’ subsequent social, hedonic, and eudaimonic well-being after reading the same article from the first study. In a 4 (decoupling/coupling/rationalization/control) by 3 (low/medium/high identification) post-test experiment, the results showed that none of the primed moral reasoning strategy conditions had significantly different levels of social, hedonic, or eudaimonic well-being. However, team identification directly affected one concept of hedonic well-being (positive affect) and all three concepts of eudaimonic well-being (meaning, elevating experience, and self-connectedness). So, as team identification increased, those aspects of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being increased. Meanwhile, team identification and social well-being were not related. Implications for players, fans, teams, sports marketing, and media psychology are discussed.