Pulling Back the Curtain on the Labor of Professional Sport

The following excerpt is from Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport by Nathan Kalman-Lamb, forthcoming from Fernwood Publishing in May.

Professional hockey players know that their work produces value and profits for team and league owners. They clearly see their own labor as a commodity (something to be bought and sold). Consequently, they experience many of the hardships associated with work in a capitalist system, notably pressures from the large group of underemployed and unemployed players and lack of control over the conditions of their labor. Yet, athletic labor is not the same as most other work; it is not merely productive labor. It also functions as social reproductive labor — it generates the meaning fans crave and around which they can form community.

It is at this social level that the greatest sacrifices are required of players. Yet, it is clear in their talking about it that they are not totally or always aware of this second kind of exploitation. However, in terms of the business and economics of professional sport, although they may not put it in these terms, players are acutely conscious of the significance of their relationship to fans. The relationship with fans affects both the way that players play and the decisions they make to play through pain and injury. At times players consciously play for fans, knowingly giving them what they need. This is only partly owing to the economic conditions. It is also partly borne of a relationship in which fans invest meaning in players and players mirror that meaning back to them. In this way, players elevate themselves to the status of heroes/symbols and fans to membership in the team. Even as this happens, players are always aware that fans do not understand the extent to which their “play” is arduous work. They realize that fans do not know what they are putting their bodies through and the sacrifices that they are making for them. Athletes labor in order to produce a particular type of product: meaning for fans. This process is alienating, but it is also absorbing and temporarily empowering for athletes. The athlete produces a commodity beyond just entertainment. Athletes produce something that the spectator takes away from the game, something that nourishes and revitalizes them.

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The most disturbing comments on this subject come from Curtis, a former NHL player. He recounts how his body was consumed and then discarded in the business of professional hockey through a narrative of his experience with a grievous knee injury:

NATHAN: So initially they made it seem like it was something that you would absolutely be able to overcome?

CURTIS: Yeah, oh yeah, absolutely. Initially, the injury happened in March and I was told I would be ready for training camp, which happens in September … So they just said, “You know what? We’ll do the surgery, get some rehab going, you know, work out this summer, and you’ll be back for training camp.” They didn’t make it out to be a big deal, so I didn’t make it out to be a big deal. I showed up in September and still could not function and still couldn’t move. Then they said, “Well, you know what, this type of injury really takes about nine months to recover.” So you know, come Christmas time, then it became, “Well, you know what, this injury is really a year-long process.” So they kept extending when I should be ready. So after a year, and I was still having issues with the knee, swelling and pain, then I started [to] become alarmed that something was not right and so then there was follow-up surgeries and everything else and it’s a long story, if you’ve got time I’ll give you the …

I do, absolutely. I’m interested.

[Laughs.] So basically, yeah, they did the surgery … I tore the ACL, the MCL, the LCL [ligaments], and the meniscus with the cartilage. So everything was torn, blown, everything. So they repaired the ligaments. They used what was called a “ligament augmentation device,” a plastic ligament to replace the ACL that had torn. And, what is supposed to happen is that the scar tissue is supposed to surround the lad, the ligament augmentation device. Eventually, that plastic dissolves and then the scar tissue becomes your new ligament, so basically, it’s a process to rebuild the ligament in your knee … And that ligament, after a year, that lad starts to dissolve on its own. And, what was happening was the scar tissue had not adhered to the ligament, so this plastic was floating around in my knee. Okay? But I wasn’t told that, but they knew about it, because they did a scope on my knee a year after surgery. Actually, it was about a year and a half after surgery, because they kept saying I’m okay, just keep going, and I mean, I had massive swelling, I had pain, but they just said, “You know what? It’s just a bad injury.” That’s what they were saying. Well, they did a scope on it and they did find that I had an exposed lad. They didn’t tell me. So they just told me to go back and keep rehabbing and keep going. The reason all this transpired was because … there was a [work stoppage] … So I was injured during the [work stoppage]. I was doing rehab … I read in the newspaper, from [our general manager], there was a quote that said, “Curtis is healthy, we’re going to clear him to play and his paychecks are going to stop at the end of the week.”

That was in the newspaper. And, this was … Christmas-time. So they effectively cleared me to play during the [work stoppage] so that they would stop my paychecks. I come back from the [work stoppage], I can’t play, but now they’re screwed, now they can’t say, “Well, no.” [Laughs.] Now they force me to play. I go down to the minors, and this is where, you know, I’m trying to play and do all these things. I can’t play, they’re shooting it with cortisone, they’re draining it, I’m not practicing. I’m only playing games every third day because I can’t even walk in between. They call me back up to do another scope, they clear it out, this is where they’re draining it and sucking all the plastic out. They make note in the doctor’s notes that there’s an exposed lad which is a problem, because this lad is dissolving, but it, the plastic just keeps floating around. So they’re aware of the issue but they don’t say anything to anybody.

It doesn’t come up until two and a half years later. So two and a half years after my knee injury, I go to see another doctor, a specialist in [another city], because now I can’t even walk, I can’t play. I effectively leave the team because now I know there’s something seriously wrong. I go see [that city’s NHL team] doctor, he wants to do a total knee reconstruction, tells me my career is over. I then get a second opinion from [doctor for a team in a different profession] and the first words out of his mouth are, “They screwed you, didn’t they?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he says, “They knew a year and a half ago that this surgery didn’t work and they were covering up.” I said, “How do you know?” He says, “Right here,” and he points it out. And now, you and I could read medical notes and we wouldn’t make heads or tails of them, it had to be explained to me what an exposed lad means. He says, “Right here in the medical notes, from that surgery, from that scope when they went in and checked it, they found the problem.” And he said, “They knew back then.” And I said, “Okay, well, now what?” He says, “Well, we’ve gotta take it out. We have to take it out, otherwise it’s gonna keep irritating you. Yeah, but your career is over.” And so this is how it all unfolded. It, you know, it really pissed me off, that, basically, I was treated as a piece of meat when they knew that I wasn’t going to recover from this injury. They dropped me and, basically, you know, I was not given any assistance at that moment.

That’s so devastating to hear about. First of all, can you just expand a little bit more about what was going through your mind? It must have been so difficult…

I felt, initially I felt positive because I had a support team around me on the team, the doctors and trainers were supporting me and, you know, working through the process. And then, what happened over time was the trainers and doctors just, basically, left you alone to go and deal with it on your own. They didn’t want to deal with you anymore, the team didn’t want to deal with me anymore. You felt isolated and you didn’t know where to turn. You didn’t want to be that player that became the cancer in the room or upset the cart or anything like that, you try to go along with it as much as you can, but eventually, what happened was, I wasn’t getting the answers I needed from [the team doctors]. They wanted me to keep playing through, they kept forcing me to go down into the minors on these rehab assignments. So these rehab assignments, they last two weeks. So every two weeks, they would reinstate me for another two weeks of rehab assignment and, after a while, even the doctors … on the farm team said, “You know what, you shouldn’t be here. There’s something going on.” [He laughs.] They weren’t aware. But they were the ones draining the knee and, shooting the cortisone. I was told cortisone should last three months, it should take the pain away for three months and, you know, grease the joint, and that should last. Cortisone, for me, lasted three days. Just enough to get through the next game and then as soon as the game is over, I’m on the table, I’m icing it, I’m not practicing the next day, they’re draining fluid out of the knee and, after a while, eventually, you go, “You know what, this isn’t right.” But even back then, my agent was like, “You know what? Just play along,” because I’m in the last year of my contract, now. So there’s a lot of outside factors that go into how you handle the situation. I’m sure if I had a long-term deal, you know, I could have handled it a little bit differently, but here I am, I’m trying to get a contract, I have to play along, and, but eventually, I think it was after the second or third scope I had [at the team medical facility], oh, what they would do is, after a month or so they would call me back up to go see the doctors, I’d get another scope, that’s where they’d clean out the knee again, they’d suck all the plastics out and so on, and then they’d want to re-assign me back to the minors. And, on one of these occasions, I finally said, “No, I’m not going. There’s something wrong. I know there’s something wrong, but I can’t prove it, I’m not a medical guy, I don’t have the history with all the surgeries and everything, I just knew that there was something wrong.” So that’s, that’s when I left the team and, I said, “I’ve gotta go see somebody else.” And, I went home, and it was near the end of another season and it was just a long ordeal to finally get to the truth. When I finally got to the truth, I felt relieved that I finally had another doctor say, “Yes, this, I’ve seen this before, this is what they did to you.” And, I said, “Absolutely, thank you, I’m not going crazy.” That’s basically how I felt at that moment, because it was a positive experience turned real negative and I was really pissed off at the end of everything, and finally there was relief, I finally had somebody understand what was going on and it wasn’t just me, I actually had proof now of this.

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Curtis’s experience screams out about the way in which athletes and their bodies are treated in the realm of professional sport. This is a kind and level of exploitation that is seldom appreciated by those who follow the games from the outside. Curtis feels he was treated like a “piece of meat” as well. The recurrence of this metaphor in the testimony of so many of the players interviewed suggests that is has currency in the locker rooms of professional hockey. Curtis’s story is an extreme study in what it means to be a piece of meat in professional hockey — an athletic laborer. The team and its management demonstrated no regard for his health or well-being as a person. Their only concern was for the production he could provide them on the ice. Likewise, there was no consideration of the long-term implications for his health, even with respect to his capacity to provide labor for the team. Given the wealth of replacement players available, management was not concerned by the possibility that they would overtax his body. Rather, their interest was in squeezing every bit of labor-power they could out of him before his body fully broke down.

This is precisely the advantage that wage-labor provides in capitalism: it is eminently disposable. The capitalist is always most interested in a flexible source of labor. Owing to hard-won gains made through players’ unions, professional sport offers some lengthy contracts that can to an extent limit the rights of management over players’ bodies. Thus, it is little wonder that management seeks to wring all the labor-power it can from a player while he remains under contract in order to provide a maximum return on investment. Curtis’s experience, while extreme, is not exceptional. Curtis was unlucky that team doctors botched his surgery, for clearly it was in their interest to get it right. Once that occurred, however, it was entirely logical within the system for management to do everything it could to avoid paying him (during the work stoppage) and maximize the amount of production he provided them while still under contract. For those players privileged enough to be deemed indispensable by management (as represented by longer-term contracts), the pressure to perform through injury is lessened. For those who play in the minor leagues or at the edge of the NHL, injury is a constant struggle.

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After his long narrative, I asked Curtis to reflect on what had happened:

[Long pause] I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know if I would have done anything differently, because we all did what we thought was best at the time … If I had to go through it again, I don’t know that much would have changed, to be honest with you. Because, I think guys are still going through it today, I think it’s the same thing. You can’t rock the boat, you can’t speak out if you don’t have proof or evidence or something, or if you’re being told something by the trainers and doctors, you just have to follow suit. You’re not a human being, you’re a number, you’re a product, you’re an asset as long as you can perform. If you can’t perform, then you’re a liability and they’ll drop you.

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It is painfully striking to hear someone who loved being a professional athlete — Curtis makes it clear elsewhere in our conversation that it was his dream and something that he loved dearly — speak about being completely dehumanized through the experience. This is the toll taken on most players by the productive processes of athletic labor. At the end of the day, the typical athlete, like other workers in a capitalist system, is “not a human being, you’re a number, you’re a product, you’re an asset as long as you can perform.”

Players endure injury because they feel that their very employment is at stake if they do not. In addition, the pressure to play through injury comes from the non-business, more social, side of professional sport in a couple of ways. First, professional hockey is a particular kind of social institution that encourages players to play through injuries because the sport markets itself as a site of toughness. Indeed, this is how hockey distinguishes itself from many other sports, like soccer for example. Hockey is the sport where players put themselves through anything. Fans come to the games because they identify with this toughness and sacrifice. This is what makes a game seem real and meaningful and important. Thus, the labor and stoicism of the athletes does social reproductive work for the fans by validating and legitimizing their investment in the game, even if players do not directly do it for this reason, but rather because of an employment imperative. Second, even the pressure that players place on one another is connected to this. Years of socialization within the system of high performance hockey have instilled the notion that toughness is an important badge of honor and part of being a good teammate. Yet, this ideology is predicated on an understanding on the part of management that players, especially top players, need to be on the ice in order to satisfy fans and also to demonstrate that playing is important enough that it will not be undermined by pain and discomfort alone.

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