Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back, by Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson, is a look at the complicated moral dilemmas of the modern sports fan.
Throughout the last four years, since Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the National Anthem, a sort of reckoning has taken place in the sports world. His activism, and subsequent blackballing by the NFL, galvanized other athletes who felt prompted to join in and amplify a variety of social justice causes while he waited for a team willing to risk the “distraction” of signing him. These protests have met with a varying amount of support from the leagues themselves, but for the most part, they have been accommodating, trying to have it both ways — visually and vocally lending support to social justice movements while not actually doing anything that would threaten their multi-billion dollar hegemony.
However, even the most anodyne acts of resistance have predictably met with reactionary pleas to keep politics out of sports. Of course, sports and politics have always been inextricably intertwined, with athletics promoting particular prized ideals while silencing voices that counter them. This is to say nothing of the money involved, the antitrust exemptions granted major leagues, and the way sports affect the practical, lived experience of millions of people. At the same time though, athletes speaking out is not new. There are the iconic examples of Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their gloved fists on the medal stand in Mexico City, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s own anthem protest in the 1990s, among countless others.
Yet apart from those who long for a non-political sports world, there are also those who love the games but struggle to reconcile the reality of big-time athletics with their own principles and ideals. Fans who love a team with a morally repugnant owner or a star player accused of violence against women; fans who love watching the Olympics or going to games at the stadium downtown, but are all too aware of the taxpayer cost or the human displacement necessary to make these things possible.
It is for these conflicted fans that Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson have written their new book, Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan. Throughout, they cover several topics such as “Cheering for a Team with a Racist Mascot,” “Doubling Down on Your March Madness Bracket Even if the Athletes Don’t Make a Dime,” and “Enjoying the Olympics Despite the Harm to Your Community.”
Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back doesn’t offer easy answers, it encourages introspection
The book does not have many solutions to offer its readers, which it readily admits in the introduction. Part of this is the fact that there can be no single solution when there is “no single sports fan” — what it means for one to reconcile their conscience with the reality of big-time athletics is not necessarily the same for each person. Also, solving these problems would also mean figuring out massive social issues such as “racism, sexism, homophobia, class inequalities, among many others.” Instead, the book is more focused on bringing these conflicts to the surface, offering fans who have long felt a dissonance between their principles and the reality of sports a way to live with this reality in ways that may lead to change.
The tone of the book is also very inviting as if they know that these are issues that are not often talked about on ESPN or in most major media outlets, being drowned out instead by endless analysis and rumors. Here, they are able to create a space where inquisitive fans can think about them and have their concerns addressed and validated. Bringing up these issues among other fans can often be uncomfortable and a book that promotes thoughtful approaches to complex issues in an age where binaries dominate most sports discussion is very welcome.
While whole books could, and in many cases have been written about each topic covered here, Luther and Davidson do a great job of capturing each topic succinctly and insightfully. In each chapter, they focus intently on a select few examples instead of trying to give a comprehensive survey of what they are discussing. They also tend to profile a fan who is wrestling with these issues in order to personalize it and show how particular individuals have made relative peace with the game they love in spite of its glaring imperfections.
In the chapter about “Loving Your Team When You Hate the Owner,” they open by telling the saga of Donald Sterling before focusing on the Wilpons, James Dolan, and Dan Snyders — owners of the New York Mets (at least for a little while longer), New York Knicks, and Washington’s NFL team. Luther and Davidson detail just what makes them such terrible owners, apart from these franchise’s perennial lack of success. Really, they’re all just pretty repugnant people, though at least Snyder finally agreed to drop the team’s slur of a nickname. Interspersed throughout the chapter are also interviews with fans of these teams, who tell about how they have come to cope with their horrific owner — cheering for a team owned by a man or family they loathe — or why they finally had to give their fandom up.
This book is not concerned with prescribing a certain response to these quandaries, with telling you exactly how you as a reader and fan should behave. Instead, it prompts you to thoughtfully consider things you may have never thought about before or to think about them in a new light. As Davidson writes near the book’s end, “every word we print attempting to hold players and teams and institutions accountable can be a small step toward ultimately reconciling the dilemmas we face as sports fans.” While most readers do not have the national platform these writers have, perhaps every difficult conversation one has with a fellow fan or every small action that shows some bit of resistance to the way things are is pushing towards a more equitable future in its own, small way.
For example, they write of Tonya Bondurant, an SBNation editor and Yankees fan, who was disgusted by their acquisition of Aroldis Chapman — the first player to be suspended under the MLB’s domestic violence policy. Bondurant was conflicted, finding herself wishing for Chapman to blow his save opportunities while the Yankees would go on to win in extra innings. Unable to force the Yankees to cut him or stop caring about the team, what she chose to do was donate a dollar to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence each time Chapman recorded a strikeout in 2017. It’s one of the multiple ways shown that fans can work towards justice while also loving sports in all their flawed glory.
While to some, this book may seem like an inherently negative undertaking, no reader could doubt the genuine love felt by the authors for the games they write about as well as many of the athletes who play them. Quite simply, if they did not want to see the world of sports become more equitable and justice-driven, it’s hard to imagine the authors taking the time to write this book in the first place. As they state near the end of the book, “Sports are worth saving and changing.” Their book shows both why and how that is the case.