In his 1963 book about cricket Beyond a Boundary, the great Trinidadian thinker C.L.R. James delivered an ode to the aesthetic dimensions of sport: “Cricket is an art, not a bastard or a poor relation, but a full member of the community.” He was filled with optimism about the possibility of sport to move and uplift spectators and even the political potential of spectatorship to provoke anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean. Alas, James’s vision of sports spectatorship was not to define the future of fandom in North America. Rather, the writer most exemplary of the dynamics of North American fandom today is one Bill Simmons, erstwhile ESPN.com columnist and editor-in-chief of its imprint Grantland, and, now, the founder of the sports and entertainment site The Ringer. For at least a prolonged moment, Simmons could safely be referred to as the most popular sports writer in the world. This is noteworthy because his approach was not traditional sports reporting, nor was it commentary based on an insider’s knowledge of the game. Simmons’ credentials were entirely a function of his ability to speak from the perspective of the fan.
His first site was called The Boston Sports Guy, and the primary objects of his fanaticism at that time were the city’s professional sports franchises, particularly the Red Sox (Major League Baseball), Celtics (National Basketball Association), and Patriots (National Football League). Some of his most representative work appeared in the 2005 collection Now I Can Die in Piece, in which Simmons articulates the logic of contemporary sports fan investment. Central to this logic is the fantasy that through their emotional investment the fan is in some strange and vicarious way an actual member of the team. Thus, after the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Simmons writes, “I just kept thinking to myself, ‘This is my team! This is my team!’” This imaginative leap is part of the quest to find meaning and connection in sport. Ultimately, what Simmons seeks is “a giant group hug, like when Andy and Red greet each other at the end of Shawshank, but multiplied by 10 million people. Does that make sense? And that’s the lure: The giant group hug.” One of Simmons’s readers, cited in the book, echoes this desire: “To me, the opportunity to achieve that feeling of solidarity with my fellow fans, the chance to celebrate wildly, totally, and unabashedly, to feel an intimate connection, a shared sense of accomplishment with millions of strangers IS important.”
If James views sports spectatorship as a means — for cultivating aesthetic appreciation and political awaking — Simmons understands fandom as an end — the central organizing principle of his meaning and purpose. This is a profound and deeply disturbing shift, and it has everything to do with the increasingly dehumanizing conditions of capitalist life over the past 50 years in North America. Isolation, alienation, and anxiety-provoking precarity have become defining features of existence under neoliberal capitalism. In this context, the appeal of fandom becomes clear: it offers a reprieve from the degradation of everyday life. While most capitalist work is alienating, in that it is typically performed for the benefit of someone else, the fantasy of sports fandom suggests that the team and its players function as avatars for the self. Thus, fans imagine themselves to be the team — its triumphs achieved through the labor of others) ultimately appropriate to themselves, while its failures represent a personal undoing. Indeed, for many fans, accustomed to being themselves exploited for labor, this is one of the very few moments when they can, as it were, play the capitalist, reaping the benefits of another’s work. Likewise, while capitalism isolates, producing exchange relations and competitive dynamics between people, fandom seductively offers the promise of collective belonging within the fantastical construct of the “team.”
There has been an absent figure in all this discussion: the athlete. The player is the person charged with laboring to produce the imaginative investments of the fan. Indeed, the political economy of high-performance sport is predicated on the satisfaction of the fan’s desire, for the fan is the market for the commodity of professional sport. If most fans were guided by James’s humane appreciation for what he calls “style,” “decoration,” and “elegance,” this would no doubt be reflected in the working conditions for athletic laborers. Unfortunately, because most fans today expect that sport satisfy their innermost requirements for meaning, purpose, and camaraderie, an exceptional demand is placed upon players to validate those desires. This means both an excess of meaning for players as they play — and accompanying loss when that meaning is yanked away post-career — and also terrible physical consequences given that players must play as if the stakes are life and death (how else can fans genuinely invest in the games unless they take on the guise of something more?). Former National Football League player Jermichael Finley’s experience testifies to the devastating toll this can take on the athletic laborer.
As I have explored more fully elsewhere, because professional athletes take on the privilege and burden of serving as the focal point of spectatorial desire and aspiration, they at times experience a form of euphoria during their careers from the excessive adulation of the crowds, much like a narcotic-induced high. The problem, of course, is the necessary withdrawal all players must experience post-career. As Finley puts it, “I missed the adrenaline rush you get from playing the game and all that, but more than anything, I think I just felt abandoned. I played in the NFL for six years, and […] now, all of a sudden, nobody was paying attention. I […] craved that outside validation, and it just wasn’t there. Because nobody was watching anymore. That’s a loneliness that’s tough to describe.”
Similarly, for fandom to serve as a substitute for the meaning and connection denied by capitalism, it must appear to matter in some fundamental sense. Historian Benedict Anderson once wrote of the nation that although it is little more than an invented form of identity — an imagined community — it nevertheless feels so real that people “willingly […] die for such limited imaginings.” He might well have been speaking of the imagined communities of sports spectatorship, which, while similarly artificial, nevertheless also produce a powerful sense of collective belonging. Yet, for the reification of these fantastical constructs to be possible, they require the athletes into whom meaning is invested as representatives of the team/community to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their bodies — to, in effect, risk death — for the limited imaginings of sports fandom. In other words, players must play in a manner that is in fact nothing like play: it must appear that their very lives are at stake. The inevitable consequence of the sacrifice fans require is, of course, injury. Although fans typically view injury as an inconvenient obstacle to team success, it is in fact brutal to experience for players. Finley describes what it feels like to endure a concussion: “When I stood up, my body felt like it was on fire and everything looked blurry, like I was underwater. I looked to our sideline, and all I could see was my teammates’ yellow pants. No feet, no jerseys, no heads. Just bright yellow pants. It was like everybody had been decapitated. I tried to walk towards them, but I only made it a few steps before I went back to the ground.”
The payments athletes must make for their brief careers only increase after they end. With added context, Finley calls his career “sacrificing everything.” The five total concussions he was subjected to — note how low this number is (one NHL player interviewed for my new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport guessed that he had endured 75 over the course of his professional career) — and a neck injury take an immediate toll on his post-career life at the young age of 27:
I had already seen my personality start to change after the neck injury, but after I officially retired, it got even worse. I would wake up every morning grumpy and agitated. I became really quiet […] It was like I forgot how to talk to people […] It was like I didn’t quite know myself […] Then one day, I went out to my truck to go for a drive, and I had to go back inside because I forgot my keys. That started happening a lot. It got to the point where sometimes I’d have to go back inside two or three times because I had forgotten my keys, then my phone, then my wallet. Some days, when I’d go to pick my kids up from school, I’d get halfway to their school and have to turn around because I forgot to put the car seat in the car, even after [my wife] had reminded me […] Over time, I grew more isolated and more distant from [my wife] and the kids — from everybody, really.
Professional athletes like Finley are asked to give everything of themselves in order to provide fans with the relief they in turn require from professional sport. The problem, for both groups, is capitalism itself. As long as capitalism produces alienating, isolating, and precarious conditions for human life, there will be a market for a form of professional sport that sacrifices athletes to compensate fans for what is missing from their lives. In this sense, Bill Simmons and his ilk are mere symptoms of the social and economic disease that has destroyed nearly every aspect of our world. In this context, a return to the utopian aestheticism of C. L. R. James is unlikely and, even, illogical.
No, to return to a place where we can again truly take pleasure in the beauty of human achievement, we need first to figure out a way to save humanity from itself.