Commentary: Fans dehumanize the players they cheer for and against

Fans view athletes as little more than objects into whom they can vicariously invest their desires, hopes and dreams.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook celebrates a dunk against the Utah Jazz during the first half of Game 6 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Friday, April 27, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Russell Westbrook is right. Let’s be clear on that from the start.

On Friday night, Westbrook caused a stir when he called out Utah fans for their behavior after the Jazz defeated his Oklahoma City Thunder in their NBA first-round playoff series.

Here’s what an irate Westbrook said of Salt Lake fans: “I don’t confront fans, fans confront me. Here in Utah, man, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players. I think these fans, man, it’s truly disrespectful. Talk about your families, your kids, and it’s just a disrespect to the game. And I think it’s something that needs to be brought up.

“I’m tired of going out and playing and letting fans say what the hell they want to say, I’m not with that. … So I just think it’s disrespectful when they get the chance to do whatever they want to do. Needs to be put to a stop, especially here in Utah.”

Conventional wisdom says that athletes deserve whatever fans want to dish out to them given the astronomical salaries they earn. I readily admit that that the size of NBA paychecks raises some reasonable questions about the way we have chosen to distribute wealth in this society. This fact, however, has little to do with the disposition of fans toward players.

The real problem is that fans come to sport seeking a release from the challenges of their everyday lives and view athletes as little more than objects into whom they can vicariously invest their desires, hopes and dreams. This is turn means that fans feel little compunction about directing verbal abuse at players, and still less about exhorting them to suffer violence and injury. Indeed, the harm athletes experience only confirms that sport is worth caring about.

Interviews I conducted with fans for my new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport made this very clear, as fans consistently spoke about how satisfying they found it to watch players play through pain. The professional hockey players I spoke to, on the other hand, echoed Westbrook.

One former NHL player said: “The effort and the sacrifice to play is out of this world and it’s something that people don’t know.” This failure to recognize the level of “sacrifice” made by players “creates misunderstandings … and, that’s normal. If people are not aware of that, how can you be sympathetic to the athlete you’re watching if you don’t know?”

Another former NHL player makes a similar point: “[Fans] see the athlete, they see them on the field or on the ice, and they expect that performance to be there every night and sometimes the player is dealing with something, it could be emotional, but most times it’s physical, that would limit them from performing at their best.”

Like Westbrook, these players recognize that fans effectively dehumanize the players they cheer for and against, whether it is through the abusive behavior they direct toward them or the complete lack of compassion they feel for the suffering athletes endure in order to fulfill their fantasies.

Thus, my only disagreement with Westbrook comes from his characterization of Jazz fans as “especially” problematic. The problem is not Utah, and it is not even fandom at all. The real issue is that we live in a society that systematically propels fans to seek meaning in spectator sport to compensate for the hardship in their own lives.

Westbrook deserves better than what he experienced on Friday. We all do.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb

Nathan Kalman-Lamb is author of the new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport (Fernwood Publishing) and co-author of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports (with Gamal Abdel-Shehid). He is a lecturing fellow at Duke University, where he teaches on social inequality and sports. You can find him on Twitter @nkalamb.