Nathan Kalman-Lamb, lecturing fellow at Duke University, is author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport and co-author of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports.
Chris Bosh nearly died playing basketball in 2015 because of blood clots in his lungs. In June 2017, the 11-time NBA all-star and former Toronto Raptor was diagnosed with a career-ending condition. Now, he is discussing the possibility of a return to the NBA if he can find a team that will take him, potentially putting his life at risk.
In the larger context of high-performance spectator sport, his reaction is perfectly logical. Professional sport exists because fans want to watch, and they are willing to spend vast sums of money to do so. Yet if professional sport is a commodity with a market (fans), like all commodities it is produced through human labour. We often hear that professional athletes are overpaid, and, indeed, they are in many cases paid more than any person deserves. But their pay reflects the revenue they generate for owners, coaches and MBA-educated front-office types, revenue that literally wouldn’t be possible without their exceptional capabilities. No one is knocking on my door to replace LeBron James.
An often overlooked part of the reward athletes recoup for their work is the emotional fulfilment of functioning as the bodily form of the hopes, dreams and ambitions of legions of devoted followers. Chris Bosh put it this way in his conversation with ESPN: “Those moments where 20,000 people are watching you, and you hit the game-winner? It’s an incredible feeling.”
Former professional hockey players I interviewed in researching my new book echoed that sentiment. One player said of the crowd’s adoration: “Somebody could be dying and you wouldn’t [care], you just felt so good … It was the best feeling in the world.”
This almost narcotic sense of euphoria is fleeting. No player gets to experience it for long, no matter how great they are. The sense of loss that comes from retirement is an inherent feature of high-performance spectator sport. It is a cost athletes must necessarily pay for generating the emotional fulfilment of fans and something almost never considered in popular discussions of sport.
Mr. Bosh brings these consequences into stark focus, explaining to ESPN: “It’s pretty much like cruising along, going 150 miles an hour in your Porsche − and then you fall into a hole.″ He adds, “You’re sitting here feeling like nobody cares about you … You start feeling forgotten. You don’t get as many phone calls. You don’t stay at the forefront of people’s minds … Guys spend all their money trying to capture that feeling again ... There’s this never-ending search for that feeling that you once had, and it can cost you.″
One former NHL player I spoke with framed the experience in even darker terms: “My post-career was terrible because I went into a black hole of drugs and alcohol and almost dying. … I was this professional hockey player that had money and everything and all of a sudden it comes to an end. And this is what the problem is with so many players. Where are you going to go? What are you doing? And next thing you know, you lose your marriage, you lose your family, you lose your money, you lose everything, you lose your self-worth. And what you’d rather do is just die. You’re just like, ‘I’m worthless.’ ”
With a little more context, it starts to make sense why Mr. Bosh wants back in. What makes less sense is why we care so little about the way this profession systematically generates emotional crisis in its workers. The real problem here is that we fans don’t think twice about the consequences of investing our money and meaning into this system.
The desire of spectators to find purpose through fandom is a function, in part, of a society increasingly organized around precarious forms of work and relationships too often defined according to the logic of exchange. In a world where alienation is the norm, people crave meaning and find it in professional sports, ignoring the human cost of their fandom.
There are no easy solutions. Team owners will continue to reap the profits sowed by athletic labour and fandom both. But if we as fans better understand the costs to the athletes whom we adore (and then discard), then perhaps we can start to consider our relationships to them beyond our own desires alone. This means developing compassion for the very real physical and emotional harm inflicted on the athlete’s body in the course of their work and it means keeping them in the mind’s eye after their careers end.
If we can’t, the cost could be measured in human life.