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.
Sport sociologists like Harry Edwards have long fought against the notion that sports and politics can be kept separate, battling back against assaults by people like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who in February 2018 told NBA star LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” In the midst of the NBA and WNBA finals, and at a time of intense political polarization, basketball fans ought to be aware of the stakes that exist for Black athletes and listen to their voices. How else can you as a fan ethically focus on the games if many of your favorite players say that they themselves cannot? In this brief essay, we offer some considerations for basketball fans today, building upon the work of many sports sociologists who have come before us.
A TIME magazine article recently discussed college athletes realizing their power to create meaningful change. While college athletes as a collective have great power, it is Black athletes in particular who are leading this charge by placing emphasis on their racial identity. Recent atrocities, such as the unjust shooting of Jacob Blake, as well as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, have placed increased attention on racism. Injustice has caused college athletes to speak out, when in the past, they have remained mostly silent.
Stories of sexual abuse and assault continually emerge from the world of college athletics. Heinous acts committed by people in positions of authority, such as Larry Nasser, Jerry Sandusky, and Richard Strauss, have come to light in recent years. In the news, we see countless examples of sexual assault by individual athletes at schools across the country. The consequences for offenders vary greatly because of cover-ups, lax investigations, and special treatment for athletes. Part of the problem is that the people who have a responsibility to report allegations of sexual assault, such as coaches, often fail to do so. Unfortunately, a forthcoming policy change is likely to make the situation worse.
In March 2020, COVID-19 abruptly halted sport as we know it across almost all ages, levels, and communities in North America and much of the world. In a matter of days we went from sport to no sport—from sport everywhere to nowhere. So what does this mean for sports fans and for society in general? What are the implications of a society without sport?