On Sport in the Age of Pandemic
In a moment of pandemic-wrought existential precarity and capitalist crisis, it’s tempting to ask why sports matter.* No doubt, unlike the devastating duality of contemporary crises, sport only simulates the stakes of life and death. But it would be a mistake to assume our most popular cultural form is irrelevant to capitalism and its social reproduction. Sport has been and will again be central to so many of our lives precisely because of its capacity to compensate for and manage the alienation, exploitation, and desperation produced by late capitalism.
As I argued in Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport, the sacrifice of athletic workers is a structural feature of high-performance spectator sport because of the very sacrifice – or potential sacrifice – that imbues the commodity spectacle with meaning for fans. The body of the warring athlete becomes a vessel through which fans can imagine communities with each other to compensate for the more profound forms of human connection systematically denied by neoliberal capitalism. If this was apparent to me before the pandemic, it is spectacularly obvious today.
From the incredible reluctance with which major sites of sporting capital (NCAA men’s basketball, the Olympics, the Premier League, just to name a few) malignantly shutdown in the first instance to the incessant calls to reopen, it is abundantly clear that both fans and owners of the athletic means of production alike are willing to put athletic labourers in harm’s way to extract the maximum amount of their requisite forms of value despite any epidemiological risk to the worker.
In Game Misconduct, one former NHL player explained to me how the athletic worker’s body is commodified in the labour process of elite sport. After describing the saga he endured over a career-ending knee injury, he said,
“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.”
This passage is all the more resonant to me in the context of this pandemic. Indeed, it reminds me of Marx’s comments in Capital that the surplus labouring population – unemployed potential workers – “forms a disposable industrial reserve army that belongs to capital as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost.” We often imagine athletic labour as exempt from this condition because of the exceptional capabilities that serve as prerequisite to the job. Yet, the ever-burgeoning minor league systems of professional sport, and the ultimate pseudo-minor league that is the NCAA have helped the athletic industrial complex resolve this conundrum. Now there is plenty of potential labour available, and they are pleased to consign it to contagion as long as the revenue curve starts sloping in the right direction.
Think, for instance, of a plan floated by Major League Baseball that would see players quarantined in Arizona for four and a half months away from their families. They built the reserve army right in: “The plan could include teams carrying significantly expanded rosters to account for the possibility of players testing positive despite the isolation, as well as to counteract the heat in Phoenix, which could grow problematic during the summer.” Heat stroke? Lung collapse? Fear not, “significantly expanded rosters” – disposable human life as it were – are here. The pandemic cannot stop the wheels of the athletic enterprise.
The same logic prevails in the hallowed realm of putative amateurism. Here’s Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy opining for capitalism as freedom: “The NCAA, the presidents of the universities, the Power Five conference commissioners, the athletic directors, need to be meeting right now and we need to start coming up with answers. In my opinion we need to bring out players back. The are 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22 years old and they are healthy and they have the ability to fight the virus off. If that is true, then we sequester them, and continue because we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.” No close reading required: the bodies of athletic labourers are simultaneously exploited yet, paradoxically, more valuable as commodities to the market – so long that it serves market functions.
It’s not just those who stand to profit that are braying for sacrifice. Fans, too, crave the spectacle that alleviates the ever crueler conditions of capitalist life. Even those who one might think would understand the level of risk quite well, like, say, Dr. Anthony Fauci: “There’s a way of [reopening sports]. Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. … Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.” That’s … surprising. Or maybe it isn’t: “Fauci noted to Hamby his interest in being able to watch the World Series champion Washington Nationals. ‘I want to see them play again,’ he said.” Fauci’s job is to protect people from the risks presented by COVID-19, yet his fandom and desire for athletic labour obfuscates that task.
In Game Misconduct, I interviewed former players because I wanted to know, in their own words, how they grappled with their experiences of pain, injury, and the relentless demands of athletic labour. The agency of the player, despite steep structural constraints, was at the heart of my project. Now, in the face of this pandemic and the rush to expose those very workers to harm, never has their agency been more important and valuable.
If there’s any comfort to be found, I find it in this quote from an anonymous MLB pitcher and union rep: “Look, I’m not saying this [playing baseball] wouldn’t be a positive. I love baseball; I want to play baseball. But if it’s not safe for us to be anywhere off the field except for a hotel, then it’s probably not safe to play games. I get it; I want to play too. You can want whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean that it can happen.”
*For a more in-depth discussion of COVID-19 and athletic labour, check out The End of Sport Podcast hosted by Derek Silva and Nathan Kalman-Lamb.
Also, this episode features another Fernwood author, Jules Boykoff, whose book NOlympians:// launches on May 26. Register for that event here.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a lecturing fellow at Duke University, where he teaches on labour, inequality, and sport. He is the author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport and co-author of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports, both published with Fernwood. He is also co-host of the brand-new podcast The End of Sport.
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