All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
– Karl Marx, The Manifesto of the Communist Party
Last year, Reggie Miller criticized Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in order to win a championship. While many others made similar critiques, I find that Miller reveals a broader issue in professional sports. Miller expresses this point through the article’s title, “Kevin Durant Traded a Sacred Legacy for Cheap Jewelry.” Framing his critique through the sacred (legacy) and the profane (cheap jewelry) reveals what I see as two inter-twined, mutually-dependent yet contradictory elements that structure professional sports.
I call the first element “romantic.” Here, I am thinking of 19th century romanticism, which was a movement in art and literature that focused on generating intense feelings, emotions, sensations, and individualism. Romanticism presented a protest against the malaise and alienation experienced with the emergence of industrial capitalism with its attack upon customs, individuality, and traditional solidarity. An exciting sporting event intensifies participants’ emotions and extends emotional connections amongst participants, whether fans or performers. Indeed, the romantic element draws fans to sports because it is at the heart of the pleasures we experience when watching sports—intensified emotional states, social solidarity, and the sense of being part of something larger than yourself.
Miller argues that Durant’s choice to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder betrayed the romantic element. In making his case, Miller invokes the religious a second time, “Durant would have been a god if he stayed in Oklahoma City.” Why? Because in small-market towns, fans love and worship celebrity athletes who remain loyal to them, who play David to big city Goliaths. “Had he stayed in Oklahoma City, people would have said, ‘He spurned all the other offers and continued to fight the giant.’”
As a result, Miller suggests that star athletes in small markets have a greater obligation to their communities than do other players. Fans’ love and loyalty creates bonds of reciprocity, a social contract between them and the star player. A player breaking his (or her) covenant with the fans is a selfish act that does not just hurt the fans and community, it selfishly places the individual above the league, and it hurts their “sacred legacy.” “Legacy” suggests more than what a player leaves behind (records, statistics, earnings, etc.), it suggests transcending our (profane) reality and building a relationship with eternity.
Throughout the article, Miller draws on religious language and imagery. His use of the word “kingdom” takes on a double-meaning between the temporal and ecclesiastical. The temporal meaning refers to a realm hierarchically organized under a regent. In this sense, Durant was the king of his realm in Oklahoma as Miller was in Indiana, Michael Jordan in Chicago, and Stephen Curry in Oakland. Miller argues that even if Durant is top-dog on the Warriors, he will always be in Curry’s kingdom. The ecclesiastical meaning invokes the Kingdom of Heaven, which refers to Jesus’ preaching in Mathew as “a process… by which God manifests his being-God in the world of men.” Whether or not Miller’s focus on immanence stems from religious convictions or not is secondary to the fact that the romantic element creates a subjective reality that we experience through feelings and emotions. The fact that it is subjective makes it no less of a social force in the lives of fans and players alike.
Although Miller favors the romantic, he recognizes that there is also an economic element in professional sport that forms an objective reality. Repeatedly, he says that he does not blame or begrudge Durant’s decision. As Miller states, “But the media, of which I am a part, always says, ‘Well, he [Durant] never won a championship.’” Professional sports are capitalist enterprises dedicated to capital accumulation. The romantic element generates pleasures that cultural capitalists exchange for profit, which makes the economic element dependent upon the romantic. Capitalists try to maximize fans’ emotional investments through the staging of events and sport media that construct heroic narratives around athletes and sports competitions so that fans can see the drama and emotionally connect to the event. The emphasis on “rings” over other measures of performances is logical. Counting “rings” is a simple, shorthand measure of quality. Championships are generally the highest grossing, most anticipated sports events. Similarly, they mark the apex of a season and magnify fans’ emotional investments.
Since professional sports events are staged for capital accumulation, the romantic is mutually dependent upon the economic. We are drawn to the emotional pleasures of the romantic element and normally look past the economic. When the covenant is broken, then the economic and its contradictions with the romantic cannot be ignored. Fans cry foul, “But, I thought you loved us like we love you, I thought you were loyal to us like we are loyal to you!” But loving a professional sports franchise is like loving Microsoft or McDonalds. Corporations cannot love you back or return your loyalty since they are institutions motivated by capital accumulation and economic growth. Leading corporate actors can choose to ignore that imperative (as Miller claims) or they can choose to follow the economic logic of capital accumulation (such as Durant and LeBron James). As Miller writes, “Owners turn their backs on players all the time. So as a player, you have to do what’s right in your heart. I get that 100 percent.” Even if Durant does not maximize his NBA salary to accumulate more “rings,” that prestige can always be exchanged for capital and does not disrupt the logic of capital.
Miller’s article reveals a structuring reality and fundamental paradox of modern sport. The romantic and the economic elements are bound to each other and contradictory. Miller is a romantic but recognizes the economic reality. As fans, we are drawn to the romantic element that transcends the profane reality of everyday life, but it is constantly undermined by the economic. The utopian space we escape to is in fact an extension of the capitalist reality we want to escape, and that constantly disappoints fans.
Jeffrey Montez de Oca is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the Founding Director of the Center for Critical Sport Studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. His areas of research include sport, media, marketing, and popular culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.