“It's a Lot Like Ending Up on the Losing Side of a Relationship”: Sports Fans, Grief, and Parasocial Divorce

“It's a Lot Like Ending Up on the Losing Side of a Relationship”: Sports Fans, Grief, and Parasocial Divorce

Nathan John Rodriguez (Weber State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3355-0.ch012
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Academic interest in parasocial relationships has increased dramatically in the past decade. A subset of this broader topic concerns the relationships between sports fans and a host of athletes, coaches, and teams. An overwhelming majority of those studies examine fan reactions following a singular event rather than over an extended period of time. This chapter unpacks the ways in which college basketball fans reacted to the departure of a beloved coach over a period of nine years. Relevant reader comments were analyzed thematically and coded by an expressed grief state using the Kubler-Ross model. The term “parasocial divorce” is introduced to describe the depth of parasocial relationships for highly motivated fans. The findings reveal how fans can come to loathe a particular persona, and the conditions under which that parasocial relationship may be rehabilitated.
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Much research involving sports fans stems from theories of parasocial interaction (PSI) and parasocial relationships (PSR). The premise is that individuals develop feelings toward media personae in a similar fashion as they might develop feelings toward others with whom they interact socially. Just as relationship expectations develop over time (Planalp & Rivers, 1996), fans tend to develop expectations and assumptions regarding behavior (Cohen, 2010). Highly motivated sports fans may identify strongly with a particular team, and such devotion may be “intense, blinding fans' better judgment” regarding how to process particular events (Sanderson, 2013, p. 505). With relatively few exceptions, however, most studies have assumed a stable relationship between fans and the object of their affection (Hyatt, 2007). This is likely because most studies take a snapshot of fan behavior during a few weeks or months rather than years. As a result, the depth of fan involvement and the ways in which fan loyalty may be tested remain understudied.

This study examines the complicated relationship many fans of the men’s college basketball team at the University of Kansas have with former head coach Roy Williams. In an attempt to better situate the inquiry, this section offers relevant background details regarding the case study and how it fills a need in the ongoing discussion of sports fans and parasocial relationships.

At his introductory press conference on July 8, 1988, Williams articulated his hope that a similar press conference would not be required “for about 30 years” due to his loyalty, as someone who was married to “the same wife for 15 years,” and owner of “the same set of golf clubs for 17, so I'm the sort of guy that if I get a place I like, and find something I like, I stick with it” (Lawrence-Journal World, 2009). Over a period of 15 years, Kansas fans had come to revere Williams for his success: In the 1990s, no school amassed more wins or a higher winning percentage (Mellinger, 2013). Although he had not won a national championship, he had reached the Final Four on multiple occasions in addition to winning a number of conference championships. Fans grew to enjoy his “Mayberry” personality: If he was upset, he might say “doggone” or “gosh darn” and he was open with his emotions following a post-season loss in a way that promoted empathy and suggested honesty (Gottesman, 1997). Williams was revered at Kansas, where fans “chanted his name before every game and he threw T-shirts into the stands. Nobody talked seriously about a statue yet, of course, but Williams could have had nearly anything” (Mellinger, 2013).

In July 2000, the University of North Carolina offered Williams, a former Assistant Coach under Dean Smith, the position of head coach. The following week was “one of the most anxious, agonizing seven-day periods in Kansas' storied basketball history” due in part to reports from multiple media outlets that Williams had accepted the position (Hartsock, 2000). Thousands of fans assembled in the university's football stadium to watch Williams's announcement via satellite, as he opened with two words: “I'm staying.” Explaining his decision, Williams foreshadowed the relational metaphors that would come in the years ahead: “The North Carolina people have been fantastic with me. It's hard to have the same feeling for someone if there's been some type of rejection. I'm hoping this is not a divorce” (Hartsock, 2000).

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