Review of Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back

Luther, Jessica and Kavitha A. Davidson. Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020. Pp. 328. Notes & Index. $26.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Noah Cohan

This being 2020, an annus horribilis if there ever was one, Earthlings—and especially Americans—have a lot to reconsider. Since the rhythms of our daily lives were turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been forced to reevaluate the importance of things many took for granted in the beforetimes. One of those things, trivial though it may seem to some, is commercialized spectator sports. Professional athletes in some American leagues have been shepherded into fan-less bubbles, while others have forged ahead with travelling to empty stadiums despite the potential long-term health consequences posed to players, coaches, and staff by the multiple team-based outbreaks. Some have opted out. Meanwhile, college athletes, particularly football players, are organizing and speaking out against unsafe labor conditions, racial inequity, and the fact that they remain unpaid even as they raise billions of dollars in revenues for university athletic departments across the nation.

All of this chaos, worsened by plenty of bad faith rationalizing about athlete welfare and insistence that, despite the worsening epidemiological conditions, “the games must go on,” is for one reason—TV revenues—that is incumbent on one audience—sports fans. So there is a certain onus on us, the sports fans, whether we feel it or not, to reconsider what the hell it is we’re doing in the first place. What are the ethical considerations we should be taking into account? How can we watch the games we love while also supporting the athletes’ autonomy as humans with rights and lives that exist independent of our enjoyment of their athletic exploits? Is that even possible during the pandemic? Should we boycott these games? Turn off our fandom, difficult as that may be?

University of Texas Press, 2020.

There is no better possible lens through which to consider these questions than Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson’s new book, Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan. Mostly written before the pandemic, the book nevertheless engages without hesitation the multi-layered and evermore urgent puzzle that is sports fan ethics. “We know why you are here,” the book trumpets at its onset, “you love sports like we do, but like us, you often feel like sports don’t love you back…. You are… searching constantly for that middle space that allows you to quiet your conscience and indulge your fandom.” The threadbare idea that commenters and fans should “stick to sports” in considering them is nonsensical, the authors unabashedly assert: the way to deal with the obvious political implications of mass-mediated athletic competition is to dive in headfirst and break down the issues one at a time.

Luther and Davidson do so on a chapter-by-chapter basis, with the various topics pithily summarized by chapter titles like “Cheering for a Team with a Racist Mascot,” “Consuming Sports Media…. Even if You Don’t Look Like the People on TV,” and “Living with the New Stadium You Didn’t Want to Pay For.” Both authors are veteran sports writers, and they effectively back up their assertions by interviewing a wide range of experts, including academics, fellow journalists, sports business professionals, and fans themselves. Though Luther—whose 2016 book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, I reviewed and recommended for this very website—has experience in the academy, the writing is broadly accessible, aimed at a popular audience. Yet Loving Sports retains the kind of depth requisite for higher-level discussions. While the book does have an inherent through-line, the chapters are relatively self-sufficient, making the text excerptable and easily divisible into thematic chunks for use in a classroom setting.

Given the uncertainty surrounding what classroom settings can and should be during a pandemic, and the attendant question as to what role the lost profits of college football are playing in the decisions university leaders are making about the health and welfare of all their students, the chapter on the labor of college athletes seems especially pressing. Titled “Doubling Down on Your March Madness Bracket Even if the Athletes Don’t Make a Dime,” the chapter systematically debunks the old arguments about why athletes in revenue-producing sports can’t be paid, including the bad faith reasoning and crocodile tears about the continued existence of women’s sports. It also exposes the fundamental racial injustice posed by exploiting the majority Black labor forces of football and men’s basketball teams for the benefit of the mostly white administrators (and indeed the mostly white universities writ-large).

But the authors do not arrive at such rhetorical certainty when it comes to the question of what fans can do about it. Continued cognitive dissonance won’t cut it, but a complete boycott seems to them, and expert witness Andy Schwarz—an economist and perpetual NCAA gadfly—an equally ineffective and ultimately selfish solution. “I have had this growing distaste for how the sausage is made—and I still eat the sausage,” opines Schwarz, “It’s why every year I get more active in trying to change the system. Because I’m not ready to boycott—boycott is fine. But I think I can have a bigger impact not boycotting and instead being like, ‘I love this sport and want to make it better.’” Or, as Luther and Davidson put it in their own voices at book’s end “we can’t all just walk away. Sports are worth saving and changing.”

Though we may feel powerless and disgusted at the state of commercialized spectator sports, always marked by the biopolitical control of capitalist enterprises but especially obviously and disgustingly so during the pandemic, it is worth staying involved and speaking out. After all, when conscientious fans don’t raise their voices, athletes with the temerity to call attention to injustice are quickly ostracized—just ask Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Thus, though there can be “no definitive answer” as to how to be an ethical sports fan—as with our team or athlete affiliations, our particular political investments will differ—the important thing is to affirm the humanity of the athletes and amplify their voices. The systemic exploitations of the current sports-industrial complex will surely persist if we, the fans who love sports though they do not love us back, turn tail and run.

Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back is not an easy task, never the escape from the pressures of our difficult world that many seek in entertainment. But it is a labor of love worth fighting for, Luther and Davidson effectively argue, so that the joyous and uplifting narrative possibilities of athletic competition can extend into our uncertain, but hopefully better, future.

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, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019.

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