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What is it about sports fandom that keeps us coming back? And what happens when scandal hits the home team? Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson are authors of “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan,” a guide on how to remain a fan while still recognizing the problems in sports.
“For many people, who they root for – teams, athletes, schools – is part of their identity and binds them into a community. Criticism of those teams feels like criticism of the person who cheers for them,” says Ms. Luther, author of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape.”
“Much of it has to do with how, when, and why our fandom forms – it’s usually wrapped up in our family, in our city, in our roots. And for those of us who were born here but whose parents weren’t, it might be an attempt to put down some roots in our city and our country,” says Ms. Davidson, editorial director and host of the podcast “The Lead.” “So much of my feeling like I belong as an American is wrapped up in just being able to talk to people about baseball.”
Fans face a quandary when sports scandals erupt. Do they keep watching or not? Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson know the feeling. They’ve written “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan,” a guide on how to remain a fan while still recognizing the problems in sports. Ms. Luther is the author of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape,” and Ms. Davidson is editorial director and host of “The Lead,” a podcast from the sports website The Athletic.
Q: What issues complicate fans’ love of their sports?
Ms. Luther: There are so many. We look at the issues of brain trauma inflicted during sports; the physical and financial damage that mega events like the Olympics and the World Cup do to local communities; how hostile sporting spaces are to LGBTQ+ and non-binary athletes; the exploitation of the labor of college athletes.
Ms. Davidson: We also include racism and exclusion in “high-brow” sports like tennis and golf; violence against women – when that player you love is accused of doing something you hate; and when you see the failed promise of the supposed benefits of a stadium in the community you grew up in.
Q: Why do fans feel so compelled to defend their sports teams?
Ms. Luther: For many people, who they root for – teams, athletes, schools – is part of their identity and binds them into a community. Criticism of those teams feels like criticism of the person who cheers for them.
Ms. Davidson: We try to answer this as a central question in the book – what is it, exactly, about sports fandom that keeps us coming back, that makes us so viscerally defensive? Much of it has to do with how, when, and why our fandom forms – it’s usually wrapped up in our family, in our city, in our roots. And for those of us who were born here but whose parents weren’t, it might be an attempt to put down some roots in our city and our country. So much of my feeling like I belong as an American is wrapped up in just being able to talk to people about baseball.
Q: Which issue has given you, personally, the most conflicted feelings?
Ms. Luther: Certainly how teams and universities handle reports of gendered violence. I have spent a lot of my career working with and telling the stories of people harmed, who had reports of that harm ignored or worse because the person who harmed them is part of a sports team. [In 2015, she co-wrote a Texas Monthly story about a Baylor University football player facing sexual assault charges who was still expected to play for university. The story made national headlines and garnered an award from Sport Illustrated.]
Ms. Davidson: The gendered violence chapter was the hardest but most cathartic for me to write. And I was so honored to be able to write it with Jessica, who has such an understanding and sensitivity for survivors and how to report on this. I’m a survivor myself, and I don’t shy away from it but I also try not to let it define me. [Davidson wrote about her sexual assault for espnW, a sports site for women, in 2016.] At the same time, it very much does, and it informs a lot of my experience as a sports fan. That in itself is difficult to reconcile; I struggle with that every day. But being able to talk to fans who face the same dilemma made me feel as though I’m not alone, and I hope others can take that away from the chapter, too.
Q: Are sports political?
Ms. Luther: Yes. What sports get shown on TV, which sports get money and resources, which athletes get to compete without scrutiny of their bodies, which athletes are seen as expendable by owners and fans, which people make decisions about and create sports media – all of these things are lower-case “political” decisions. The racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc., that courses through this society shows up all the time in sports in subtle but terrible ways, ways that make certain people feel unloved by sports. But sports are also big-P “Political” in that private teams get public funding for stadiums, politicians show up to sporting events to engender support, the national anthem is played before most U.S. sporting events, and nationalism is the bedrock of international competitions like the Olympics. The Olympics is so political that the International Olympic Committee had to pass a rule telling athletes not to be political in order to try to contain it. As Kavitha wrote for espnW and as we quote in the introduction to the book, pretending that sports are not political is actually the hard thing to do. The separation is what takes effort to uphold – and it’s mostly done by people whose right to exist in this space isn’t questioned.
Ms. Davidson: Yes. Full stop. Athletes have long recognized this – it’s not new for them to have platforms to express political messaging. The platforms are just bigger now, and more widely available; athletes are more amplified than ever before. But with that comes more embracing and more backlash from fans.
Q: How has COVID-19 affected sports?
Ms. Luther: We can see how important the labor of athletes is to the running of teams and leagues. We can all see where the money goes and where it does not. We can all see which sports/teams/leagues/politicians take seriously the health of their athletes, staff, and the surrounding community and which do not. Any of these things could lead to change and I hope they do. I hope universities and the NCAA really have to reckon with the exploitation of athlete labor, that women’s sports get a bigger spotlight, that we rethink money in youth sports and college sports, and that we examine the relationship of sports to the wider communities in which they exist.
Ms. Davidson: The sport shutdown has demonstrated how much sports reflect what’s going on in the world. If, as Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said, sports are the reward for a functioning society, we haven’t quite gotten there yet. At the same time, I can’t fault any of my friends or family in New York for wanting sports back, after months of adhering to quarantine and mask mandates, to simulate some sense of normalcy. And if anything, the current state of the world – what we can and can’t have – highlights sports as something that we’ve taken for granted.
Q: Can fandom change with our changing times?
Ms. Luther: Yes, absolutely. There’s this tension with sports – it’s a made-up thing (how a game is played, what the rules are, what counts as cheating, etc.) and yet it feels like the version that exists in this exact moment has always been and will always be. But sports are always changing to make the games more exciting or more safe. And so fans change with it. We wrote this book, in part, to say to other fans like us, those who love sports but don’t feel loved back, that we are here and we are fans, too.
Ms. Davidson: I’d argue that the category of “sports fan” was always supposed to include people like me and Jessica – we just haven’t always been recognized. But yes, I think that there’s so much room for sports fandom to expand to include all of us.