The hearing is looking at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors' recent report on student-athlete compensation and the modernization of rules related to name, image etc.
( AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Brigid Bergin: I'm Brigid Bergin, in for Tanzina Vega. Professional sports have looked very different over the last few months. We've been bringing you a lot of stories about the challenges that COVID-19 has posed for entire sports ecosystems from players and organizations to fans and communities. I, for one, really miss normal summer baseball, which for my family, usually means cheering on the New York Yankees with actual people in the stands. Well before COVID, many of us were already wrestling with the reality of loving a sport and hating some of what goes on off the field or the court.
Kavitha Davidson: As a fellow Yankees fan, I think we've probably faced some similar quandaries.
Brigid: That's Kavitha Davidson, co-author of the forthcoming Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan. In the book, she and co-author Jessica Luther take on the ethical challenges of being a sports fan today. I asked them about what issues they wanted to tackle.
Kavitha: The biggest one, I think, that I'm confronted with almost constantly is when you love a team or a player that has been accused of violence against women. That's something as Yankee fans that we have in Aroldis Chapman, our closer. One of the things that also just growing up in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan and not really being able to afford to go to Yankee games but going on class trips is you see what the neighborhoods that these stadiums are in are like and that the promise of economic development doesn't actually bear any fruit.
The stadium subsidies chapter where we explore how the stadiums take taxpayer dollars and don't actually give anything back to the neighborhoods that they're in, that's also something that I'm confronted with daily. The owners' chapter as well, when you love your team but you hate your owner, again, as a native New Yorker and a Knicks fan, that resonates very strongly with me, but I think that there are lots of reasons that your owner might not necessarily reflect the fans. That's something that is quite universal, I think, in sports fandom. There are so many of these issues that we cover in the book, but those are three big ones to me that resonate as a New York sports fan.
Brigid: Jessica, what about you?
Jessica Luther: I have similar issues around gender violence and sport, but I think we have a chapter on being a fan of women's sports and how you often feel like you're the only one. That definitely rings true. Sometimes it's just really hard to be a women sports fan because you don't have all the resources. It's not like osmosis in the air. I always seem to know what's going on with the NBA even if I don't care about it, but it's a lot harder when you're a women's sports fan.
The other big one for me is there's a chapter on racist native mascots. I went to Florida State University, which is the Seminoles, and I've had my own personal reckoning around their mascot and my uncomfortableness with it. What does that mean for me as a fan and an alumni of this institution that I love a lot? That one is something that I've been thinking a lot about.
Brigid: Jessica, even when some professional sports leagues face criticism, it seems like men still tend to be the face of the issue and at the center of research surrounding the issue. How did you see that play out in terms of what you learned about research for concussions in sports?
Jessica: We have a whole chapter on brain trauma in sport. I think brain trauma is interesting in the fact that we tend to only really talk about it around the NFL, which, of course, is men and male athletes. When you talk to experts on this, of course, girls and women are facing the same kind of issues. Cycling is actually the most dangerous sport for brain trauma and lots of people do that in the world, heading a soccer ball.
There's all kinds of things where girls and women are just as likely to get brain trauma, but so much of the work around it is on men's bodies. We focus on sports, but these are issues that are bigger in the world, right? Brain trauma is one of those things. There's three groups that get it in large numbers and those are athletes, football players, soldiers, and domestic violence victims. Within the larger society, the people we do research on are still mainly men even though most domestic violence victims are women. This is something about sports but also bigger than that.
Brigid: When we talk about an issue of representation in sports, Kavitha, when you think about the LGBTQ community, who do you feel like has been left out of those conversations?
Kavitha: I think, definitely, women. How many times do we see a piece or hear a television spot where the question is, when will we finally have an out, active gay athlete? You're just ignoring a huge chunk of the WNBA. You're ignoring Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird and women players who have reached the highest levels of their sport, by the way, who have always had this courage and this bravery to be out and active.
I think that that speaks to not only that it takes men to be the face of these issues, but especially when it comes to an LGBTQ+ issue, it speaks to what we expect out of women's athletes, right? There's this idea of masculinity versus femininity and femininity is the reason that women can't be proper athletes. If they're gay, obviously, they buck that trend. That's the thinking behind that.
It really is just unfair to the work that these women have done and continue to do the work that women fans, that gay WNBA fans have done in this space to try and push through and say, "Hey, we're here. We have money to spend on these sports. Pay some attention to us." When we do finally have an out, active male gay athlete, it's going to be because of the work that these women have done before them.
Brigid: This summer, we've seen some shifts in terms of how pro sports leagues talk about racism and what they allow their players to say. Are you both seeing leagues make commitments to real change?
Kavitha: Yes. I think it's actually been really stunning. I come from a sports business reporting background, so I always follow the money and there's a lot of conversation right now. The same as we had when Colin Kaepernick first took his knee about whether fans are going to stop watching the NBA because of its commitment to Black Lives Matter messaging and because fans don't want to be hit over the head with racial justice messaging.
The fact of the matter is those fans might exist. I think they're few and far between frankly because I think a lot of people talk a big game. At the end of the day, they don't actually turn the television off because of these things. More importantly, the sponsors and the advertisers have decided that it is good business to support Black Lives Matter. Nike is putting out these incredibly moving spots.
Nike is problematic for all kinds of reasons. The fact that you have these giant corporations that with the leagues in partnership are supporting this messaging does go to show you where we are as a country right now. It's not just the NBA. It's not just the NFL, which are majority Black player leagues. You're seeing this out of NASCAR. You're seeing this out of MLB. It's really been stunning to see how this has spread so quickly and also that it took this long.
Brigid: Jessica, has there anything that has surprised you about some of these changes this summer from these leagues?
Jessica: Yes. I think one of the biggest was the Washington NFL team name which, for decades, native and Indigenous people have been asking for them to change that name. It's a historically racist name that has been used in really terrible ways against native people. Here we are, all of a sudden, and they have finally changed the name. The owner of the team, Dan Snyder, who shows up in our owners' chapter, he said a few years ago, he would never change it.
I talked to a couple of native women who were part of this fight. One of the things they pointed out was, yes, it's been decades of native and Indigenous people advocating for this, but Black Lives Matter really helped that momentum and it built and it built. It really did take this particular moment. Kavitha brought up corporations. FedEx was not-- [chuckles] They saw the writing on the wall when it came to the Washington NFL team's name and that played a big role in that change.
That's a tangible thing that has happened. I don't want to give the team a lot of credit for that because they should have done it a long time ago, but it is a big deal. I was happy to see it. If people read the book, they'll see that we weren't sure that was ever going to happen. That part of it matters a lot.
Brigid: Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson are the co-authors of Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back. Kavitha is also the host of The Athletic's podcast, The Lead. Thanks so much to you both.
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