I don’t consider myself much of a sports fan these days. I grew up on hockey; there were only the original six NHL teams when I was a youngster. One either cheered for the Leafs or for the Canadiens. If you were lucky, you had a hockey sweater of your team; maybe a cap or toque.There was no Internet; no way to connect with other fans to create social communities (other than attending actual games) to discuss scores, players, trades and so on. Today professional sports is a huge industry, teams cost millions of dollars, top players get paid astronomical amounts and team loyalty is a thing of the past. I soon lost interest in hockey, baseball and, to a certain extent, football (the North American variety). I do watch the occasional NFL, CFL and U.S. College football games, but I am not a “fanatic” by any stretch of the imagination. Then, along comes a book like Nathan Kalman-Lamb’s Game Misconduct (2018, Fernwood Publishing) which only served to validate my feelings about pro sports and fandom:
“The sense of meaning and belonging acquired through fandom is frequently fleeting – for it is not founded on actual social relationships – and must be rehearsed over and over again through the acquisition of commodities such as jerseys and caps.”
Now, I felt enlightened (rather than shamed) for my closet is full of football jerseys and caps.
However, Mr. Kalman-Lamb’s book is not only about fandom, it is about sports injury and the business of sport too. For it is all inter-related as his research shows. He interviews former pro hockey players (goaltenders, scorers, and enforcers, under the promise of anonymity) as well as hockey fans. He asks the players about getting an injury, playing through an injury, their relation to fans (if any) and if they ever felt pressured to play while injured (even concussed).
NKL: How aware of concussions were you at the time? What kind of impact did they have on you at the time?
Darin: Zero. I had no idea. No idea. I mean it was more of a, you didn’t feel well or you were sick. But you went out and played again, like, right away. So we didn’t, there was no protocol for getting knocked out back then.
While this may not appear surprising, or comes as no surprise, it is the reason that players kept playing (and owners wanted them to be on the ice): the players were afraid of being replaced, and the owners had monetary reasons in mind. As for the fans, Mr. Kalman-Lamb concludes after interviewing a number of them:
“Rather than acknowledging that the meaning and pleasure they derived from watching professional sport was based on the destruction of athletic bodies [which is shown to be true earlier in the book], most spectators seemed relatively, even willfully, oblivious to this reality.”
Mr. Kalman-Lamb’s writing is not overly technical and it is logically developed and presented. I cannot stress enough how eye-opening Game Misconduct was for me. Professional sports as a distraction (by supplying a false sense of community) from isolating capitalist society was a new thought for me. While the NFL, NHL and other pro sports leagues get bigger and bigger, I now know the reason so many get swept up in following sports so intently, almost religiously.
“For fans, sport is something more than spectacle or distraction. It is a site of profound meaning and purpose that enriches their lives.”
This book will surely initiate discussion and generate some controversy along the way. As for the sports fan, it is a “must-read.”
Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom and the Business of Sport
(This review was based on an Advance Reading Copy of the book, supplied by Fernwood Publishing.)
Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University (Durham, North Carolina), where he teaches on social inequality and sports. His research and teaching focus on labour, race, multiculturalism, gender, spectatorship and sport.