Kalman-Lamb, Nathan. Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport. Halifax, NS: Fernwood, 2018. Pp. 183. Notes & Index. $24.00 paperback.
Reviewed by Noah Cohan
As Kevin Durant writhed on the floor of Scotiabank Arena partway through the second quarter of Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, his Achilles tendon having recoiled upward into his calf like a retracting window shade, Toronto Raptors fans cheered. Many journalists and Twitter commenters found this crowd behavior to be in bad taste. I found it hard to imagine a more apt demonstration of Nathan Kalman-Lamb’s central thesis in Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport.
What do sports fans owe the athletes we cheer? What is our responsibility to them? When they are injured at the behest of a team that we support, are we culpable? Most fans are likely to say “nothing” and “no”—if anything, they feel that the athletes owe them something. As Kalman-Lamb puts it, fans “feel like they are not complicit in a larger economic structure. Fans perceive sport to be natural, even inherent, not an institution they are responsible for sustaining through their interest” (60). Therein, “the idea that injuries are ‘just part of the game’ prevails, reinforcing the notion that sport and the violence therein are natural and normal, thus absolving … fans of any responsibility for harm that is done to players” (62).
Kalman-Lamb’s book, in an unabashedly Marxist mode, attempts to change those perceptions—to help fans understand that “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” (6). Driven to such fannish consumption by the “ravenous hunger for community” that our individual alienation under neoliberal capitalist power structures produces (8), Kalman-Lamb argues that “it is precisely because athletes are willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the team that the imagined community becomes meaningful and real” (10). Implicit in the structure of fan attachment and attendant economic investment in sporting enterprise is the belief that it is not only necessary that athletes work for our pleasure, but also that they must be willing to suffer for it.
In order to provide more than a polemic, Kalman-Lamb builds Game Misconduct around ethnographic interviews with fans and former professional athletes. Providing extensive excerpts and analysis from his conversations with eight respondents in each group, Kalman-Lamb gleans important insights into the fraught relationship between them. He emphasizes the degree to which most players “repeatedly frame fandom as something superficial and external to their experience” even as they understand that they “are simply the vessels for the meaning of fans, to be readily discarded when a new and perhaps superior body is recruited to the task” (45). While players are sensitive to their disposability, Kalman-Lamb’s interviews demonstrate that “fans’ allegiance extends to the team, above and beyond the players who comprise it” and that “players play through pain and risk their bodies in order to make the stakes of the game real” (83, 85-86). The fans do not connect with the athletes on a human level, then, but only understand them as avatars of a collective entity, embodied symbols whose physical vulnerability deepens the meaning of the spectacle.
Though Kalman-Lamb’s argument is global in scope, his respondent pool is somewhat particular: all the former athletes are ex-hockey players and all the fans live in Canada and are primarily fans of Canadian teams (especially NHL teams). And while he recognizes this particularity and its rootedness in the exigencies of his personal circumstances as a Canadian with resources in and deep knowledge of ice hockey, the cultural specificity of Kalman-Lamb’s research context occasionally seems to conflict with the universal ambition of his claims about sports fan behavior. When considering athletic injury with regard to inter-player violence, for example, he understandably lingers on the role of the hockey “enforcer,” whose presence on the team is entirely premised on his bodily sacrifice in gladiatorial combat. The symbolic resonance is thick, but it is also distinct to hockey. While American football also ravages the bodies of athletes based on intentional harm—not to mention combat sports of all stripes—many popular sports (basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf) produce injury as a byproduct of exertion in ordinary gameplay. While this difference doesn’t invalidate Kalman-Lamb’s point about the fact that fans expect athletes to push their bodies beyond their limits and revel in those bodies’ destruction—recall Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury and the Toronto fans’ reaction—it does remind us that different sporting contexts are rich with distinctions that broad-reaching arguments flatten or oversimplify.
The same goes for fans: while it may be true for many fans that if they“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… it would be difficult to sustain the experience of fandom” (9), there are certainly many others who understand that reality and actively shape their fandoms in response to it. Sports are not always a safety valve. They do not necessarily “breed… a form of complacency that is useful” to capitalism (114). Likewise, while the predominant oral reaction in Scotiabank Arena to KD’s injury was one that dehumanized him, many other fans, both in the arena and outside it (including some Raptors fans!) were sympathetic and concerned for Durant’s well-being as a person, not an avatar of competition.
A couple of Kalman-Lamb’s fan interviewees do in fact reflect such complexities in their responses to his inquiries about athletes’ injuries, and he does well to recognize them, even if they are inconvenient for his larger claims about fan behavior. What’s more, in pivoting toward an anti-capitalist model for a more humane sporting future, Kalman-Lamb turns to basketball, and specifically fan-athlete interactions during the 2011 NBA lockout to assert that “fans have the capacity to reject the distinction between politics and sport and organize new, until now unimagined, forms of resistance to athletic sacrifice. Maximum potential lies in the solidarity of fans and athletes together” (173-174). While he is clear that “full liberation from the sacrifice of athletic labour will only come with emancipation from capitalism itself” (172), Kalman-Lamb ends with hopeful encouragement that “pockets of resistance” can be cultivated in advance (166).
Ultimately, whether or not one is sympathetic to the Marxist critical architecture undergirding it, Game Misconduct is a tremendously impactful sports studies text. It has eminent value as a teaching tool, not least because many undergraduates will instinctively react negatively when forced to grapple with the idea that capitalism andsport are interrelated tools of oppression, when they have been socialized to uncritically embrace both. Even if they don’t ultimately agree that “in consuming the spectacle of professional sport and participating in the accompanying imagined community of fandom, spectators experience the social reproduction they require in order to be productive capitalist workers” (163), such students will be forced to reckon with the fact that they were not “born with the knowledge that they are members of imagined communities of fandom. They [have been] socialized into these factories of meaning” (80). Doing so will hopefully spur them to ask, the next time an athlete goes down in pain, why they cheer.
Noah Cohan is a Lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His book, We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press on July 1.