Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable

Photo Source Erin Costa | CC BY 2.0

In my new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport, I argue, “[Athletes] are under no illusions about the fact that their work produces value… through commodification, alienation, and exploitation.” While this was undoubtedly true of the former professional hockey players I interviewed, it could well have been written as a preface to the searing new book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by National Football League (NFL) defensive end Michael Bennett and The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable is, of course, a book about race and sport: indeed, it is a sort of manifesto for the movement of athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Bennett who have used their platform to protest structural racism, particularly in the form of epidemic police violence against racialized people. Yet, what the book also makes disturbingly clear is that injury, exploitation, and traumatic violence are a pervasive part of elite football, whether at the college or professional level. And, more than this, whether we wish to admit it or not, it demands us to confront the reality that fans share some responsibility.

Indeed, Bennett and Zirin’s book could just as easily be called Things That Make Fans Uncomfortable. Or, perhaps, rather, things that Should. Because, as the two authors make clear, the exploitative and alienating dimensions of elite sport are connected to the way in which spectators are seduced by what we might call the sport industrial complex to dehumanize and instrumentalize the players they admire rather than offering them the full measure of empathy they deserve – and which, I might add, most fans would likely gladly offer them in a different (less commodified) context.

Instrumentality is at the heart of the dynamic between spectators and athletes. Fans watch and invest in elite sport because it offers them meaning and pleasure (no small ask in the context of the ever-more-dystopian fascist neoliberal capitalist hellscape that is America, but I digress). However, to derive the enjoyment they need from the spectacle of sports – need, because this pleasure is often one of the few comforts available to help endure capitalist life – fans must also block out the ubiquitous evidence that their satisfaction requires the literal sacrifice of athletic bodies. For the more sociopathic among us, this is no big ask; for the average fan, it requires the suppression of impulses towards empathy they might typically expect to feel towards another human being experiencing (often) grievous hardship. This is why dehumanization is built into the very structure (and structures!) of professional sport as we know it. Fans and players exist at a physical remove, both in terms of the ever-widening expanses of America’s stadiums and the increasingly simulacra-like effect of digital viewership. This distance facilitates the ease with which fans can tolerate (and celebrate) the fact that athletic bodies are commodified and destroyed. And they are destroyed, for, in the perverse world of capitalist social relations, the appeal of spectator sport, the meaning it provides, is predicated on the illusion that something profound is at stake in each contest. That illusion can only be sustained by the repeated demonstration of athletic laborers that they are willing to sacrifice their health and well-being in the service of the spectacle.

These dynamics are hardly lost on Bennett and Zirin. They, through the first-person perspective of Bennett, write, “I was half god, half property. But whichever half [fans] were dealing with, I was never fully human.” The instrumental relationship between fans and players means that when careers end – including when they end as a direct consequence of physical harm – players are quickly forgotten by meaning-starved fans desperate to transfer their investment to a new vessel. Thus, Bennett feels the “fear that all the love I get from fans is more like the love they might give a steak. I’m loved until I’m eaten and abandoned when all that’s left is a bone. The hardest part as a player is knowing that people love you conditionally. Out of sight, out of mind.”

In the context of college sport, the fan-player relationship is even more difficult to swallow, given that athletes are barely compensated for their sacrifices, even as fan investment – financial and emotional – often surpasses that of professional sport. Bennett and Zirin write, “Fans of college sports need to know this. I hear people say, ‘I’m an Aggie!’ or ‘I’m a Georgia Bulldog.’ Fine, but are you still a Bulldog when it comes to the lives of the people under the helmet? Are you a Bulldog when the teenagers you cheered for don’t make it in the pros? When they’re running through glass just to feel alive?” Indeed, one of the most scathing indictments of US athletic culture in the book is directed at the failure of fans to acknowledge the young athletes who labor to sustain the economy of college sport: “Ignored is how powerless we are when the pads come off, or that we are risking brain injury at an educational institution to entertain.” It is easy to understand the rage of an athlete like Bennett at the instrumental attitude of so many fans towards players, even if this perspective does not fully account for the social conditions that dispose fans in this way.

In professional sport, on the contrary, it is precisely the cash athletes receive that seems to justify the violence they are expected to endure. Bennett and Zirin argue, “I think people feel that because we are getting paid a lot, the risks we take are justifiable. This also means there is little empathy to be had. In other high-risk jobs, if someone gets killed or hurt, people mourn. But when a player has CTE, it’s ‘He brought that on himself.’”

Indeed, the burgeoning $7 billion per year (US and Canada), 59 million participant industry of fantasy sports is the logical extension of how professional sport has encouraged fans to view athletic workers: as avatars for their emotional gratification, consequences be damned. Bennett and Zirin write, “Fantasy football isn’t just a game [fans] play on a computer. It’s what they’re watching on the field: the fantasy that we are disposable names and statistics… They see a player as a part, an extension of equipment, a collection of statistics — and the numbers, not the human beings, tell the story. They don’t see that a player has a wife or kids or that real families are affected in the process. They don’t see the pain.”

And pain, really, is what defines the experience of the professional athlete. Pain endured in order to sustain the escapist and vicarious fantasies of fans ravenous for meaning. That pain comes in many forms, some mental and others physical, both during the career and after it ends.

One form of harm suffered by athletes like Bennett that is seldom considered by fans is the fact that they are compelled to perform a role in order to satisfy the demands placed upon them as athletic laborers. This begins in earnest in college: “Little by little we conform to what our coach wants, what the program wants, what the academic advisor wants us to study so we stay on the field, and bit by bit, chip by chip, we lose the foundation of who we are. We get stuck in a character.” What this means is that a consequence of the athletic work that produces pleasure for fans is that players often experience a crisis of identity. They lose a sense of who they are as they are molded into machines capable of optimal physical performance in the service of athletic spectacle. In practice, this means that players sometimes literally lose something as basic as the sense of what their food preferences are: “I know this person as a tough defensive lineman, and he was in tears… The same friend told me… ‘I’m thirty-two years old, bro, and I don’t know what the fuck I like to eat.’” This is because he has been instructed how to act and what to do for so long that he has lost the awareness of his own desires and needs. Bennett and Zirin movingly characterize the consequences of the identity crisis that ensues from a career in elite sport this way: “It’s PTSD. It’s people stuck in an identity that no longer exists. They don’t know how to love themselves because they don’t know who they are.”

Of course, the pain of professional football is not merely figurative. Rather, every day is marked by the struggle to endure the effects of a body in crisis. Bennett and Zirin describe in gritty detail just how gruesome this pain is, even in its least extreme incarnations: “The real devil in this league is the pain: for the last seven years, I’ve been playing with a bad toe. I can’t even wear some shoes, my foot hurts so bad. I know a toe isn’t as serious as a concussion or a torn muscle, but I have to numb up part of my foot before every game. They stick a six-inch needle into my toe.”

Some might argue that the suffering caused by a wounded toe might be worth the considerable rewards of professional football. The same cannot be said of harm to the head, which we now understand can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a devastating condition found in the brains of 99% of deceased NFL players in a major Boston University study. Unsurprisingly, players like Bennett are well aware of these risks, and experience “the daily fear that you could just lose your brain” as an additional psychological consequence of their work. He adds, “I think about CTE and bodily injuries all the time. I can say without shame that I’m scared every time I go out on the field that something possibly could go wrong, and I might leave my kids for good.”

Again, you might ask, if players are so acutely aware of the risks (a word that in fact seems inappropriately generous given the near certainty suggested by the data), why do they ever play through injury? The answer, of course, is capitalism. The NFL, unlike the other major North American professional sports, doesn’t guarantee contracts. If a player gets hurt and can’t perform, he can be cut, just like that. It’s no wonder, then, that players do everything they can to avoid that risk: “No matter the rules and regulations, no matter how many posters they put on the locker room walls, we are pushed to [play] by the toughest coach there is: that voice in our heads that tells us we don’t have guaranteed contracts and this can all go away if we can’t make it onto the field.”

When careers end, the pain lingers. In one sense, of course, this is a physical and financial issue: “I had teammates who got injured, needed multiple surgeries over years, and got stuck with the medical bills. Maybe those of us on athletic scholarships don’t have to take out loans and incur debt, but the debt piles up in other ways. When you are paying for physical therapy out of pocket at age twenty-eight, with no health insurance, or when you can’t find work because of a bad back at twenty-five, you know debt.”

In another less-frequently considered sense, it is emotional. Athletes are, to a very significant degree, defined by their exceptional physical attributes. When those physical capacities inevitably decline and degrade with age, the athlete loses an essential component of their identity. Bennett and Zirin write, “People love you because of the way you jump and fun; when you lose it, you no longer mean anything. That’s the hardest part: to be so alienated from your own body that you look at your physique, feel in your bones that it can’t do what it was once able to do, and know that your value and worth in the eyes of others will be diminished.” This is no minor hiccup in a life’s journey. For, if “the only thing you can do is run fast, jump high,” then “you can’t go out and do other stuff. This can make retired players in their thirties already feel empty and isolated — you wake up in the morning and don’t even know how to start the day. It opens you up for depression, drug addiction, and not wanting to live.”

Bennett and Zirin’s book is vital, then, because it slaps readers in the face with the reality of life and labor in professional sport. Its very existence as a profoundly human exploration of the costs of athletic work from the standpoint of a player is a fundamental challenge to the dehumanizing logic that sustains the business of elite sport. For this reason alone, it is a book that must be read. The solution to capitalist alienation is not the fan’s vicarious pleasure in another’s sacrifice. No, in fact, what athletes and spectators require is the same: collective solidarity and struggle against a system that gleefully commodifies, dehumanizes, and exploits most of us, albeit in discrete ways, and often at the expense of one another. That’s something we should all feel uncomfortable about.