Examining Reactions to the Dale Earnhardt Crash: The Importance of Identification with NASCAR Drivers

Article excerpt

Social scientists have been interested in spectators' evaluations of sporting events for many years. Although researchers have investigated evaluations of and reactions to a number of situations, such as reading about one's team in the sports section of a newspaper (Wann & Branscombe, 1992) and the closing of a team's stadium (Trujillo & Krizek, 1994), most examinations have focused on responses to a team's performance. That research indicates that fans tend to be biased in their analyses. For instance, researchers have found that fans' attributions tend to be self-serving as they internalize team successes (e.g., "we won because of our talent") and externalize team failures (e.g., "we lost because of poor officiating," see Wann & Dolan, 1994a; Wann & Schrader, 2000; Warm & Wilson, 2001). In addition, fans are often positively biased in their evaluations of the team's past and future performances, such as recalling more victories from past seasons than actually occurred (Wann, 1994; Wann & Dolan, 1994b). Researchers have found that spectators with a high degree of identification with the team (i.e., fans who feel a strong psychological connection to the team, see Warm & Branscombe, 1993) are particularly likely to report biased evaluations.

However, a limitation of past research on the evaluations and analyses of sport fans concerns the fact that, to date, investigators have focused on reactions to team sport events (e.g., wins and losses). Researchers have yet to sufficiently examine the reactions of fans following individual player sports (e.g., golf, gymnastics, tennis, etc.). Such was the focus of the current investigation. Rather than focusing on the reactions of fans after their favorite player had succeeded or failed, however, we were interested in reactions to a potentially more meaningful event: the crash and death of professional racecar driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr.. Earnhardt died on February 18,2001 after his car was hit by another and slid into the wall on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Because previous research had yet to examine spectator reactions to such events, and because a theory of such reactions was not available, we used the disposition theory of sport spectatorship to guide our predictions. Developed by Zillmann, Bryant, and Sapolsky (1989), disposition theory argues that fans gain enjoyment from witnessing two events: watching their team perform well and watching a rival team perform poorly. Thus, the greatest amount of enjoyment should occur when a favored team defeats a despised rival. Disposition theory argues further that a fan's disposition toward a favorite team and that team's rivals will impact the intensity of affect felt subsequent to a competitive event. Specifically, enjoyment from watching a favorite team perform well should increase with positive sentiments toward the team while enjoyment from watching a rival team lose is expected to increase as sentiments toward that team decrease. Researchers have found strong empirical support for disposition theory (Madrigal, 1995; Sapolsky, 1980; Zillmann et al., 1989; Zillmann & Paulas, 1993). For instance, Wann, Dolan, McGeorge, and Allison (1994) asked college students to report their level of identification (i.e., disposition, see Bryant & Raney, 2000) with their university's men's team prior to witnessing the team win or lose a regular season contest. Subsequent to the games, the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire assessing their affective state. Consistent with disposition theory, highly identified fans (i.e., those with positive sentiments toward the team) reported strong negative affect after watching their team lose and a rival succeed and positive affect after watching their team win and a rival lose.

With respect to evaluations of and reactions to the Earnhardt crash and death, the following hypotheses were generated using disposition theory. …