Does holding a sporting mega-event like the Tokyo Olympic Games amidst a pandemic and the continuing environmental crisis of global warming exemplify the “death drive” of 21st century capitalism? By “death drive,” I am referring to recent work by the Swiss-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who argues that the capitalist system’s “compulsion of accumulation and growth” is driving global society towards environmental and human catastrophe. Han extends from the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the “cruel aggressiveness” of humans could be attributed to our propensity for self-destruction and our “drive to return to the inanimate condition” of death. Han uses Freud’s notion of the death drive to explain the destructive tendencies of capitalism. It is the human’s “unconscious fear of death,” he writes, that feeds the capitalist order: people pursue and accumulate capital as a way of escaping the grips of death, believing that more growth, more power, and more capital “means less death.” The result is a “frenzy of production and growth” as capitalism prioritizes unrestrained entrepreneurialism and the accumulation of capital over the global ecosystem and the well-being of life on Earth.
In 1970, American economist Milton Friedman wrote that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” If Friedman were alive today, he would scarcely recognize the contemporary corporate social responsibility (CSR) landscape. Indeed, in the 21st century, CSR initiatives—that is, the integration of social and environmental concerns within business operations—have become so commonplace that their absence from a corporate portfolio would seem strange. An often-cited example of contemporary CSR practices is that of TOMS shoes: For every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS would donate a pair to a humanitarian organization in the global South. The calculus here is not difficult to figure: At a small investment cost, CSR allows a corporation to showcase a desire to be a “good neighbour,” affords it a social license to operate, and enables it to reap the benefits of favourable media coverage.
Professional Black athletes navigate a fine line between being autonomous, independent, wealthy elites and undervalued, replaceable workers in a larger sports industry governed by logics of racial capitalism. The late Cedrick Robinson’s Racial Capitalism theory sees the systems of capitalism and racism as interconnected and inextricably linked. Robinson, a political scientist, argued that economic and social values are ascribed to individuals differently according to race. With this in mind, Black celebrity athletes occupy a seemingly powerful, yet precarious status. Journalist William Rhoden used the term “40 Million Dollar Slaves” to highlight the ways in which Black athletes’ accumulation of wealth does not fully alleviate their oppressed status in an anti-Black American society.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka declared she would not participate in press conferences prior to the 2021 French Open. Reactions to her refusal were filled with anger and criticism. In a deleted tweet, Roland Garros posted images of athletes doing press work with the text, “They understood the assignment.” Early reporting provided lip-service to Osaka’s concern for her own mental health while emphasizing other players, such Rafael Nadal, disagreed with her. Similarly, tennis icon Billie Jean King criticized Osaka for avoiding media since the press helps build the sport. Others characterized her as a self-centered, childish millennial unwilling to sacrifice like other athletes. And after assessing a $15,000 fine for not meeting contractual media obligations, she was further threatened with suspension from other major tournaments.
While basketball fans rejoice at the start of the 2020-21 playoffs, I am eerily reminded that it will mark the culmination of the first full NBA season since the untimely death of one of the league’s greatest stars—Kobe Bryant. On the foggy morning of January 26, 2020 in Calabasas, California, a tragic helicopter crash claimed the lives of Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, and seven others. The stunning news consumed the sporting world and left many people reeling for solace, mourning in disbelief. Many fans like me, who grew up watching Kobe, still experience trouble accepting his sudden ascension.
The issue of amateurism has long been a subject of debate and controversy in U.S. college sport. In 1916, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted an official definition of an amateur athlete as “one who participates in competitive physical sports only for the pleasure, and the physical, mental, moral, and social benefits directly derived therefrom.” This initial definition, which prohibited any form of remuneration including scholarships, has been frequently contested and revised over the years.
Our lives are socially structured in many ways. This means that we are frequently directed to behave in a certain manner, embrace particular values, and think about ourselves in socially patterned ways. Gender and sexuality are especially influential aspects of social structure that affect our aspirations, interactions, and identities.
As sociologists who study such influences, we recently investigated the relationship between gender, sexuality, and sports fandom among U.S. adults in a study published in Sociology of Sport Journal. Prior research indicates that most Americans are sports fans. Yet, historically, sports cultures have often been organized by and for heterosexual men as spaces for them to have fun and connect with one another as they watch and talk about sports. Sports have also been used as sites where men could successfully “prove” themselves to be heterosexual and masculine. In contrast, sports cultures have often been unwelcoming spaces for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) adults. This has been less true within women’s sports fan communities, although women’s sports are also characterized by a long legacy of homophobia. Still, many people across all gender and sexual identities love to watch and follow sports.
Numerous European attendance records have been set at soccer matches in Glasgow, Scotland; 147,365 spectators attended the 1937 Scottish Cup Final at Hampden Park, 149,415 were at the 1937 Scotland vs England match, and 136,505 attended Celtic vs Leeds United in 1970. In all these instances, supporters—the vast majority working class men—stood on steep, mostly uncovered, terraces. Such a design characterised virtually all British soccer stadiums at the time. Getting as many people as possible into the stadium meant little regard for sanitation, comfort, provision of food, and safety.
In recent years, the sport of women’s mixed martial arts (WMMA) has gained substantial popularity in North America. Many have viewed this increase in popularity as indicative of progress toward gender equality, as women have traditionally been discouraged from participating in sports that place a heavy emphasis on so-called “masculine” traits, such as physical strength, aggression, and dominance. Scholars, as well, have viewed the increased participation of women in combat sports optimistically, with some even discussing WMMA as a new “feminist frontier.”
Issues related to athlete welfare are impossible to ignore as the National Basketball Association (NBA) leaves the “bubble” behind and begins the 2020-21 regular season on December 22. As play resumes, sleep and athlete recovery will be a major area of media attention and discussion within the league.
It is no secret that NBA players are routinely exposed to poor sleep, jetlag, and overtraining. Teams play 82 games in a 6-month period and travel an average of 40,000 miles a season. Commissioner Adam Silver called rest a “significant issue,” and Michelle Roberts, Executive Director of the NBA Players Association, predicts that sleep will be an issue in future collective bargaining. Just last week, the NBA updated its rest policy, specifying that teams may face fines of $100,000 if they decide to sit out healthy players in nationally-televised games.
Given this context, promoting sleep may seem like an easy way to safeguard players’ wellbeing. But the rise of a “sleep-friendly” NBA shows that fostering athlete welfare is more complex than it may first appear.