On March 11, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. As night fell, all NBA games were suspended, and by week’s end, professional sports—in their traditional, spectator-heavy format—went on hiatus.
In this vacuum, three scholars—Nathan Kalman-Lamb of Duke University, Derek Silva of Kings’ University College, and Johanna Mellis of Ursinus College—launched The End of Sport, a podcast exploring the myriad forms of injustice and inequality that are rampant throughout sports, including racism, sexism, colonialism, and jingoism.
Since the podcast’s launch, sports have haltingly resumed, and as athletes have been shunted into isolated bubbles or forced to work without sufficient precautions, they’ve sounded off at an increasing volume.
Following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks went on strike, launching similar strikes in the NBA and WNBA, inspiring other leagues to pause competition, and stirring hopes of long-term action.
The INDY spoke with Kalman-Lamb, who is the author of the book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport, to make sense of the current moment, in which the games on TV can seem largely detached from reality—but the players’ actions are anything but.
INDY: How much of the evolution of sports since this spring—specifically, the disregard that leagues have shown towards athlete health—did you anticipate?
NATHAN KALMAN-LAMB: I’m sorry to say not a single event that has transpired has even mildly surprised me. The premise of my book is that, at the best of times, the entire business of high-performance spectator sport is based on the sacrifice of the athlete’s body: Fans only care enough to pay attention if they perceive the stakes to be life-or-death. That doesn’t mean fans want players to literally die, but they want players to play as if the import is such that they’d be willing to give their lives up. That’s what allows fans to generate the meaning that they derive from it—and the fan’s desperation for meaning has everything to do with the alienating conditions of capitalism—but that places a burden on the player.
The athlete has to do emotional work for the fan, and that work comes at inherent cost to the player. When their careers end, they just fall off a cliff. We’ve produced a system in our society that produces all this money and meaning, and there’s absolutely no mechanism to provide for and care for the people who do the work to sustain it.
This is all pre-pandemic. Then we place it in this context of a health crisis, but none of the underlying factors have changed, and fans still require meaning, now either after being laid off or working in far more alienating circumstances. So the very conditions that made fans desperate for sport in the first place are exacerbated, and that puts this greater pressure back on athletes. If you think about it through that analytical lens, it’s clear as day why we would then see these athletes sacrificed during a pandemic. It’s what all these logical forces are conspiring towards.
What does the NBA strike highlight about the power of collective labor action and the difficulties of meaningfully sustaining it?
I’ll focus on the NBA—although the WNBA has been the leading force of this movement—to make this point: NBA players are hard to recognize as workers because they are so well-compensated. They’re not in a factory making commodities, but they’re creating a “commodity spectacle,” and because they help create it and don’t control it, they’re workers.
What the NBA players did was create a spectacular, symbolic impact to send a message to their employer about the gravity of the situation in the United States, and also send a message to other workers across society about what is in fact possible.
That the window has already shut disappoints me. I think NBA players have the ability—because they’re not replaceable as workers—to take a really profound stand that can embolden people with much less security. But things develop so fast. They don’t really have time to be organized in a deeply strategic and tactical way. That can create space for powerful mass explosions, but it can also allow for those explosions to be dispersed really quickly because there’s no organization within them.
How can fans meaningfully support athletes and not just the more insidious elements of sport?
The power of consumers to cause change under conditions of capitalism, I think, is limited. And we sometimes mystify the larger social structure by imagining that fans have more agency than they do to counter the deeply dehumanizing effects of the system.
But I don’t think, on an ethical level, we shouldn’t do the best we can to show solidarity to people who are being dehumanized. It matters on social media if you castigate a player for not playing through an injury hard enough or if you talk about how much you can’t wait for sports to be back. That does have an accumulative effect: The more that people see that represented around them on their streams, and the more that kind of fandom is modeled, the more it does contribute to this larger dehumanization of athletes as workers—the way we treat them not as people but as vessels for our desires.
I’m not saying just extricate yourself from fandom. Fandom is a powerful force, and it provides a lot of meaning in our lives. But it is actually possible for us to be fans who show solidarity for the workers we are caring for, and to recognize who they are, and at the end of the day, prioritize that humanity and that politics over whether the team wins or loses.
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