Professional Sport as Sacrifice
Illustration by Adrian Brandon
The following is an excerpt from Nathan Kalman-Lamb’s Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport, set to be released May 1, 2018 by Fernwood Publishing.
On December 17, 2014, Chris Conte, player for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League, had this to say about the costs of athletic injury:
Ever since I was a little kid, it’s what I’ve wanted to do … In college, I didn’t even graduate school because my senior year, I honestly let school be a casualty to that because I knew I had one opportunity to make it to the NFL, and I put everything into that. And I felt school’s something I could figure out later. As far as after football, who knows. My life will revolve around football to some point, but I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the nfl and live a long life. It’s something I’ve wanted to do with my life and I wanted to accomplish. And I pretty much set my whole life up to accomplish that goal. So I don’t really look toward my life after football because I’ll figure things out when I get there and see how I am.
About a month before, Steve Nash, player with the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association, posted the following statement on Facebook after announcing that he would sit out the entire season:
I definitely don’t want to be a distraction, but I felt it best everyone heard from me in my own words. I have a ton of miles on my back. Three bulging disks (a tear in one), stenosis of the nerve route and spondylolisthesis. I suffer from sciatica and after games I often can’t sit in the car on the drive home, which has made for some interesting rides. Most nights I’m bothered by severe cramping in both calves while I sleep, a result of the same damn nerve routes, and the list goes on somewhat comically. That’s what you deserve for playing over 1,300 NBA games. By no means do I tell you this for sympathy — especially since I see these ailments as badges of honour — but maybe I can bring some clarity.
I’ve always been one of the hardest workers in the game and I say that at the risk of what it assumes. The past 2 years I’ve worked like a dog to not only overcome these setbacks but to find the form that could lift up and inspire the fans in LA as my last chapter. Obviously it’s been a disaster on both fronts but I’ve never worked harder, sacrificed more or faced such a difficult challenge mentally and emotionally.
I understand why some fans are disappointed. I haven’t been able to play a lot of games or at the level we all wanted. Unfortunately that’s a part of pro sports that happens every year on every team. I wish desperately it was different. I want to play more than anything in the world. I’ve lost an incredible amount of sleep over this disappointment.
Years earlier, Professor Andrew Sparkes, of Leeds Beckett University in the U.K., who had been a standout teenage rugby player, wrote of his experiences after suffering developmental spinal stenosis as a consequence of his much less lucrative and celebrated athletic exploits:
Inhaling, I unfold my collapsible walking stick and begin to hobble. As my left foot hits the ground a searing, slashing pain, arcs from my lower back into my left buttock, left thigh, left calf muscle, and finally, into my foot. Right step-fine. Left step-stab. Right step-fine. Left step-stab. Left, left, left-stab, stab, stab … Stand still, lift left foot off the ground. Stand still, take all the weight on the right foot. Lean on my walking stick. Relief. Stand still. Move. Left step-stab. The world, my world, collapsing, into the left side of my lower body. I am my left limb. I am the space between pain and no pain. I stand still. I cannot take one more step. This is a world of stillness, slowness, impairment, disability, of otherness.
Sparkes recounted what it was like listening to others describe watching him perform during his athletic prime: “They are celebrating a me I don’t remember. A me I don’t recall. Their applause is for a historical self, a ghost. Someone who was ‘me’ long ago. Things have changed. My body has changed. I have changed.”
Chris Conte’s disclosure is striking in two ways: he both acknowledges the extent of the physical sacrifices he has made and legitimizes those sacrifices. It is no surprise to anyone who participates in sport or to many who watch it that these games cause extensive bodily harm. Even so it is startling to hear this cost articulated in terms of losing “10, 15 years” of life. However, Conte’s appraisal of the physical cost of sport is not unique. Professional athletes experience this reality every day. The second part of this equation is no easier to digest. Most people assume that Conte’s willingness to sacrifice years off of his life is a product of the monetary rewards that he receives for playing. After all, it is a constant refrain that athletes are overpaid to an exorbitant degree. Conte’s statement in no small measure tackles this assumption head-on from the outset. Although many athletes are paid more money than any individual is justly entitled to, a) this does not exempt them from being exploited as workers, b) only a relatively miniscule proportion of professional athletes receive outlandish sums, and c) they are compelled to make sacrifices that cannot be measured by money. Conte is not arguing that money justifies losing years of his life. He refers instead to a different motivation, the ambition he has had ever since he was a “little kid.” Thus, he “pretty much set [his] whole life up to accomplish that goal.” The game means something larger to Conte than dollars and cents and is something much more complicated to understand. This theme recurs again and again in the recollections of former pro athletes and is inextricably linked to their relationship with spectators.
Like Conte, Steve Nash refers to the tremendous damage suffered by his body over the course of his professional athletic career. Unlike Conte, Nash says that this toll — the sacrifice required of the athlete — may not be worthwhile. At a certain point the suffering his body is put through can no longer be justified. Yet, what is most remarkable about Nash’s statement is who it is targeted at: his fans. He finds it necessary to explain his decision to those who follow and worship him. One might imagine that the intimate experience of bodily pain would be something he would prefer to keep private, yet he has chosen to share it with the world. In doing so, Nash acknowledges that the pro athlete’s body does not exist in the private domain. His labour is not just in the public spotlight, it is for the public in fundamental ways. High performance professional athletes give up their bodies to the broader community — to the service of others.
If Conte instructs us about the physical cost of athletic labour and Nash indicates that the athlete’s body is appropriated by the fan, Andrew Sparkes reveals what this costs the athletic labourer. Conte imagines what this cost will be, suggesting that he is willing, in the end, to lose years off of his life. Nash is less cavalier, disclosing that the toll on his body has already begun to significantly impact his quality of life. Sparkes provides us an even clearer window into physical harm that athletes endure. For Sparkes, pain has become “the world, my world.” The implications of this go beyond his suffering (although that should not be minimized) — his entire sense of identity has changed. Where once his world was defined by the physical agency and mastery of the elite athlete, now it is “a world of stillness, slowness, impairment, disability, of otherness.” Indeed, it is difficult even for him to recognize himself when he hears his past exploits being reported: “They are celebrating a me I don’t remember.” Sparkes brings us face-to-face with the full extent of the sacrifice made by the athletic labourer. The harm his body has experienced, the loss of physical ability, is the loss of the self he once was. This is a crisis that extends beyond pain alone. The full sacrifice the athletic worker makes has not yet been sufficiently discussed in popular or academic treatments of sport and injury.
This is not a wholly unique phenomenon. All workers in a capitalist society are in some way alienated. Workers, in contracting to sell their labour for a wage, lose connection with their capacity to work and with what they create. Workers’ bodies become instruments for the will of the capitalist. Yet, while the athlete, like other workers, labours for the owner of the team (the capitalist), there is something different about the way in which the athlete’s body is usurped. What Nash implies through his Facebook post is that another way his body is taken from him is that it becomes the temporary receptacle of the hopes and dreams of fans.
Nash apologizes to fans because he recognizes that his body has become the site of their investment — their hopes and dreams. His body is his own, of course, but for a time it has also, in a significant albeit ephemera lsense, been theirs.
Professional athletes are often understood in popular culture to be a highly privileged occupational group, owing largely to the fact that many workers are paid handsomely to play a game. In other words, professional athletes are typically viewed as the antithesis of exploited workers. This perspective, while seductive, ignores two facts: 1) many professional (minor league players, for instance) and revenue-producing (unpaid elite U.S. college sport) athletes are paid very little (and, in the cases of more well-compensated players, less than they are worth to the team) and 2) they are subject to highly unsafe working conditions. The former issue is clearly exploitation but so too is the latter, because professional sport is a workplace. In Canada, section 217.1 of the Criminal Code explicitly requires that “reasonable steps” be taken to prevent “bodily harm … arising from … work.” Athletes are nevertheless subjected to unhealthy and unsafe working conditions as an inherent feature of their labour. This failure to apply worker safety regulations to athletic labour is clearly a form of exploitation. In fact, the violence that occurs in sport contributes to the popularity and profitability of the game. Indeed, this is precisely why professional athletes do not enjoy the protections supposedly guaranteed to all workers under Canadian law. Labour and employment lawyer Albert Kempf argues: “Hockey is sacred to all of our hearts as Canadians, more than any other sport, probably … We don’t want to mess up the game. Any province that attempted to go there [health and safety regulation] would probably feel a lot of pressure not to go there.”4 To understand why this is, we need to think more about how the business of professional sport works and what role injury plays in sport’s popularity.
The sacrifice made by the athletic labourer is fundamental to the business of professional sport. This is not a complex argument from an economic standpoint. Every economy requires people to make purchases in order to generate profit. Capitalists make profit by investing money in a production process through the purchase of labour, raw materials, and machines. These “means of production” are transformed into commodities that are sold for more than the sum total of the means of production (this is because labourers are not paid as much as they deserve to be paid for the work they are doing, hence, exploitation). However, for capitalists to actually profit from their investment and the exploitation of workers, the commodities they produce must be purchased by consumers. If this happens, the capitalist invests this money back into production in order to continually and systematically generate increasing wealth. However, if the commodities produced in this manner are not sold, it becomes a loss for the capitalist. The productive cycle can only be completed through the purchase of the commodity by the consumer.
So what does all of this have to do with the business of professional sport? Well, it is really quite simple. For the owners of professional teams to earn a profit, they require consumers to purchase the commodities they produce: the athletic events they exhibit. That money may come from different sources. Ticket sales make up a decreasingly significant portion of total revenue. Nevertheless, whether it is the large rights contracts doled out by cable television companies or merchandising, the bottom line remains the same: the business of professional sport hinges on the desire of fans to invest their meaning and money in the teams they follow. Julian Ammirante puts it like this in his discussion of the business of the National Hockey League:
This point bears repeating: the value to a sports organization — such as the NHL, the NFL, or any other sports franchise — of the services provided by the athletes it hires is derived from the demand sports fans exhibit for the events these inputs produce. All other things being equal, the payments athletes receive for their services are positively correlated with fans’ demand for professional sporting events.
The harm athletes experience in professional sport is not coincidental to the meaning that the spectators receive from watching, following, and investing in their team. It is a necessary part of what makes the commodity of professional sport desirable for the consuming fans. In fact, a spectator requires the athlete to be willing to make a sacrifice of their body in order for the fan to make the investment (emotional and financial) in the first place. The experience and implications of athletic injury — and the full extent of exploitation inherent in professional sport — are directly connected to those of fans.
Spectatorship is a process of identity formation. Membership in a community of fans is a choice, even though it is made in the context of neoliberal capitalism. This context is important to understanding the imperative many feel to belong to communities of sports spectatorship. Neoliberal capitalism is characterized in large part by the isolation and alienation of people within a system that relentlessly seeks to individualize them as market actors. This arrangement of social relations produces a powerful desire (need?) for meaningful relationships and human connection that are not mediated by economic exchange. In short, it produces a ravenous hunger for community in whatever guise it might appear, including some forms that are more symbolic than “real” — for example, sports fandom. Professional sport has flourished because it offers something that is particularly coveted in a capitalist context: the possibility of meaning in the form of community. Fandom offers fans an image of the community they desire in a form that may actually inhibit the development of real, tangible relationships between people. Instead, it unites people through a common allegiance to symbolic objects, like uniforms, memorabilia, and the like. Indeed, this imagined community is produced through what Paul Gilroy calls “logo-solidarity”: the idea that a visual image can represent the existence of a community in the place of the actual human connections and networks we would conventionally expect to be its foundation.6 Logo-solidarity is a useful notion for understanding how the imagined community of fandom is formulated and maintained. If fans gave serious thought to the fact that the team they support is a business designed to extract as much of their hard-earned income as possible, and if they reflected on how irrational it is to passionately exhort individuals nominally representing a certain area, even though those individuals may not even live there, it would be difficult to sustain the experience of fandom. Thus, the sense of meaning and belonging acquired through fandom is frequently fleeting. Because it is often not founded on actual social relationships, it must be renewed over and over again through them acquisition of commodities such as jerseys and caps.
The social reproductive dimensions of athletic labour — the ways in which athletic labour provides community and meaning for fans — are in sync with the demands of capitalism. The success of professional sport in satiating the worker’s need for emotional subsistence helps sustain the capitalist system, which is nourished by the robust labour-power of workers. A worker who feels emotionally despondent will not be equipped to provide the maximum labour-power a capitalist requires in order to produce the largest possible profit. This is an increasing problem for capitalism as it comes to rely more and more on labour in the service sector — labour based around exhaustingly artificial interpersonal relations of exchange — to generate the ever-larger markets the system requires in order to continually produce profit. Workers in the service sector and others often experience burnout or lose the capacity to feel emotion.7 This makes it difficult or impossible for them to perform their work and live full emotional lives. For any of us to get up, go to work, and provide maximum labour-power, we must be refreshed emotionally and psychologically, as well as physically. Yet, the work of this emotional labour places exceptional and perhaps unquantifiable demands on those who perform it. It asks them to give something fundamental of themselves in order to refresh another.
Social reproductive work can be profoundly costly to those who do it. This cost cannot simply be measured in terms of lost wages, as with other forms of capitalist labour. Rather, it is a personal sacrifice of the body through injury, both acute and chronic, that athletes are compelled to make because of the social reproductive aspects of their work. This harm can accumulate to the point at which it becomes debilitating, particularly once athletic careers end. The damage is not simply physical; it can also lead to a crisis of identity, as most athletes understand themselves as people with extraordinary physical capacities (as in the case of Andrew Sparkes). It is in this sense that violence — defined broadly as physical and mental harm — is not an incidental part of athletic labour, including in sports that are not usually considered violent (tennis, baseball, etc.). The sacrifice athletes must make of opening themselves up to harm in their occupational life fuels the incredible popularity of professional sport. It is precisely because athletes are willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the team that the imagined community becomes meaningful and real for the fan. Fans require players to persevere through the generalized violence of professional sport rather than rejecting it by retiring, refusing to play, or demonstrating a general lack of passion or intensity. A refusal would signify to the fan the artifice of the imagined community of fandom.
A fuller accounting of the exploitative dimensions of athletic labour must consider the fact that the player offers up their entire self to reproduce the fan, yet is compensated only for their productive labour.
Sport is a form of social reproductive work in that the body of the athlete becomes a vessel for the meaning that sustains the business, the political economy, of sport. The sacrifice, or potential sacrifice, of the athlete’s body is a significant element of the appeal of spectator sport, for it sets the stakes high enough to justify emotional and economic investment. Athletes must be willing to sacrifice their bodies in order to sustain the fiction of the imagined communities of sports fandom. By providing something for fans to invest meaning in and a basis on which to form the communities they need to compensate for the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, athletes become part of the reproduction of the spectator’s emotional capacity to serve as a worker. This work allows the spectator to combat the isolation and alienation that make it difficult to provide the system with the optimal productive work it demands. In other words, athletic labour provides an important part, although not the only part, of the emotional sustenance fans need. There is a tremendous cost to the athlete who performs this social reproductive labour. The body becomes so damaged that it is unlikely to ever fully recover its former capacities. The toll is also mental/emotional, for the loss of the physical capabilities that once served as the foundation for the athlete’s identity is profoundly dispiriting.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb is author of the new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport (Fernwood Publishing) and co-author of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports (with Gamal Abdel-Shehid). He is a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University, where he teaches on social inequality and sports. You can find him on Twitter @nkalamb.