Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for being here with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Listen, maybe you hear that my voice is a little different but I know a lot of you have got cold out there and I'm not immune to that either, but don't worry, we're going to get through it together. All right, here we go.
On Monday night, Buffalo Bill safety, Damar Hamlin, lined up on defense against the Cincinnati Bengals, and the stakes were high. A Bill's win would have put the team one step closer to securing home-field advantage in the playoffs. A Bengals win would have made them the top team of the AFC North, the Bills needed to stop them, and Damar Hamlin was part of that plan. In September of last year, Hamlin became a starter after a teammate suffered a neck injury. Prior to Monday night's game, he'd spoken in the past about the NFL, as a dream come true, and about his love for the game of football.
Damar Hamlin: I can't even describe it, but I cherish it every second that I can, every second of every day just because you never know when the last day could be that. You get an experience, something like this, so I'm cherishing every moment I can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: During Monday's game, no more than 10 minutes passed from kickoff to crisis. After a seemingly routine tackle, Hamlin got up, and then he collapsed to the field. Speaking on ESPN, former NFL player Ryan Clark tried to put into words the slow realization of the moment.
Ryan Clark: When Damar Hamlin falls to the turf and when you see the medical staff rushed to the field and both teams are on the field, you realize this isn't normal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As medical crews rushed to his assistants and rendered CPR, the stadium went quiet. The fourth wall of sports as a spectacle was broken, and it brought the rhetoric of the game crashing into reality. Clark reckoned with the collision of the two.
Ryan Clark: So many times in this game, we use the cliches, "I'm ready to die for this. I'm willing to give my life for this. It's time to go to war." I think sometimes we use those things so much, we forget that part of living this dream is putting your life at risk. Tonight, we got to see a side of football that no one ever wants to see or never wants to admit exists.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For over an hour after the incident, the NFL appeared to struggle to make a decision about the game's continuation, before it was eventually suspended. While Damar Hamlin fights to recover, as a society, we're left to ponder the choices that we provide young men risking their lives for our entertainment in the NFL. This version of masculinity at play in the world of sports and the responsibility of care spectators owe our athletes.
Early Wednesday morning, I spoke with Nathan Kalman-Lamb, assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, and author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport. He's also co-host of The End of Sport Podcast. Nathan, welcome to The Takeaway.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, as of Wednesday morning, I understand that Damar is still in critical condition. Can you tell us about your reaction to what happened on Monday night?
Nathan Kalman-Lamb: It's devastating whenever we see any human being suffer those kinds of circumstances. It's heartbreaking to watch an athlete go through this. Like everyone else, my first instinct is just hoping that Damar Hamlin pulls through this and recovers, but it also forces me to confront the structural conditions that put him in that situation in the first place, that it's not just a really unlucky, unfortunate accident, an unhappy byproduct of sport that this happened to him, even though that's how it's framed because we don't want to think about necessarily consciously, the risks, the danger, the harm that is embedded in sport.
My contention is actually Damar Hamlin's tragedy here, it's a spectacular visible version of the reality experienced by almost all elite athletes, especially in violent sports, like football. They are all suffering harm in front of us all the time. They are all being killed by this sport of football in front of us every time we watch. Normally, it takes years, but in this case, we saw it happen right in front of us and that was overwhelming to watch.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If I take this outside of the NFL, if I look at workplace injuries, if I look at people who have heart attacks, head injuries, isn't this also likely to happen for those who make a fraction of these dollars doing things like cleaning the leaves out of our gutters, working in all kinds of workplace conditions that are not spectacular. In other words, we don't spectate them, we don't see them. Is it truly more dangerous? Certainly is more dangerous than being a radio host or college professor, but is it any more dangerous than these folks working the American railroads in dangerous conditions who don't even have a day of sick leave?
Nathan Kalman-Lamb: There's no reason for us to rank the different forms of risk between these occupations. I think if we are concerned about occupational health and safety, injury, and harm within capitalist workplaces, we should be concerned about them in every single site, right? My concern, my focus on athletic labor, that doesn't exclude a concern or regard for the experiences of railroad workers or people in any other walk of life, as you say, they're often much less well-remunerated.
I think if we have concern for workers' health and well-being, we should have solidarity across all of these sites. I don't want to dismiss anything you're saying, because I think you're absolutely right, that capitalism has no regard whatsoever for the health and safety of any of its workers, and is willing to sacrifice them.
One of the things I think we need to talk about in the context of athletic labor, though, is we often don't see it as a site of labor at all, we frame these enterprises as games, as a form of play, we understand the participants to be extremely well paid, and that I think, in a way, occludes the harm that is experienced in these sites. That's the way I would turn it back around and say, it's not really ranking one against the other, but let's think about the ways in which actually athletic labor does embody forms of profound harm.
I'm going to push it even further than that. I'm going to argue that the commodity spectacle that is produced, particularly in violent forms of sport, and we're talking about football, and I think football is the paradigmatic example really of what we're talking about here. The commodity spectacle of football has a market in part because fans want to extract meaning from the sport that they're watching.
In order for them to extract meaning, the stakes of the game have to seem as if they are life or death. They're not going to go out to the park and watch a pickup game and get that payoff. They understand it's just casual, it's just a game. It's nothing, it means nothing. Elite athletes have to play as if the stakes are life or death to validate the economic and emotional investment offense. Now, there's a contradiction here, and we saw this contradiction play out in the response to what has happened to Damar Hamlin.
The contradiction is, fans don't literally want players to die. I want to be really clear about that. I am not claiming that fans saw what happened to Damar, and were somehow hoping that the worst outcome would befall him. They weren't. They were honest, and the reactions of horror and shock, and empathy. I believe every word, but that doesn't mean that at the same time, this is why it's a contradiction, at the same time when they are typically watching these games, the struggles, they need the players to play as if the stakes are life and death.
If they don't, actually, that's often what causes the most [unintelligible 00:08:06] from fans. To see the player who protects themselves from harm, from injury, who pulled themselves out of the game, who makes us realize it is a game because in a way, that tears back the illusion that sports are somehow more meaningful.
The reason why I think that that's so important is because fans come to sport like everyone comes to everything in a capitalist society, having experienced the conditions of capitalist life, and the conditions of capitalist life are profoundly isolating, alienating, atomizing. They divorce us from community, and all these different professions, you're talking about different professions that people work, well, imagine someone in the service sector, a person who works in the service sector, their entire life experience day-to-day is shaped by exchange relationships.
They're confronting customers who have an exchange relationship, colleagues who are in this kind of employment relationship. Your entire day is a form of exchange relationship that destroys the possibility of connection and community, and that is something that is profoundly fundamental to the human experience. Feeling that alienation, that lack of connection, it drives fans to sport to seek out compensation for it, and sport gives us that. It gives us "the we." We can say we are the Buffalo Bills. The fan can say that and they feel it. The games the players are participating in, they produce the possibility of community for fans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We have to take a quick break, more of this conversation in just a moment.
Okay, we're back with Nathan Kalman-Lamb, assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. He's also author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport. Many of these players are players who are college graduates. They know, as we heard from Damar in his quote, "They know that it is not for a lifetime, that it is likely for a relatively short period of time." Yes, the remuneration is part of it, but you can hear from him his love of the game, his sense of it being a gift to have this opportunity, to be in this exchange despite the violence. Is it in part because part of that trade-off is to be part of this community?
Nathan Kalman-Lamb: Although Damar's words on the surface suggest that the players are part of the community, to me, the community is built fundamentally, entirely on the work, on the sacrifice of the player. It cannot exist without it, which is why the injury and harm are necessary and fundamental. I will also suggest that the athlete understands that what they're doing ultimately is work. The athlete does not experience the same level of illusion that the fan does.
Now, we have to understand about the larger football universe, like the NFL, is connected to college football, which is connected to high school football. It's actually all the same ecosystem. It wouldn't be possible to have the NFL as we know it, without the college football world and also without the [unintelligible 00:11:13] high school and so forth. All of this exists within the context of US structural racism.
I say that because the argument in favor of football as we know it, is often an argument based on consent, an argument that says, these players signed up to play. That looks like a very convincing argument. Because you say, in many cases, players are making millions of dollars, they're being cheered by all these fans. The fact is and we cannot ignore this fact, football leads to harm fundamentally. It is not possible to participate in football and avoid harm and especially harm to brains.
In the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, it's often called this degenerative brain condition which we cannot diagnose in living people, but we know is there because of autopsies performed on the brains of players who have, unfortunately, died. The players that we watch on Sundays and now on Thursdays and Saturdays and pretty much every day of the week, they're experiencing the harm that causes CTE on every play they notice happening.
Why are they participating? You've offered one possible explanation and explanation that they're experiencing got a meaning from this and of course, there are elements of that. There are ideological elements of participating in a society that fetishizes football. There's no doubt that it's connected to masculinity. These ideas of hegemonic masculinity, of course, that's part of it as well.
Part of it is, US society systematically denies particularly racialized people opportunities. We know that, from slavery on, this is the nature of American society and so that we know, and the NFL is 70% Black, Power Five football is 55% Black. Massively disproportionate numbers. These football players understand that football opens doors for them that are denied otherwise.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nathan, I so appreciate you taking the time with us today. Nathan Kalman-Lamb, assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and co-host of The End of Sport Podcast. Thank you for bringing insight, clarity, context to this tragic moment. Of course, all of us are sending just every bit of good wishes for healing and for recovery to Damar and to his family.
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