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The Immorality of Sports Fans

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Jonah Keri, a man endowed with MLB Hall of Fame superpowers and friend of this blog, has a righteous essay calling out the immorality of sports fans and our culpability in systems of labor exploitation that define both college and professional sports, while urging us to do better.

And more broadly, that both amateur and professional sports organizations stomp on the rights of athletes to enrich those in power.

And that all of us as sports fans aid and abet a corrupt system, and lambast any policy or practice that might interfere with our enjoyment of games, because we believe we’re entitled to drama-free entertainment, any time, all the time.

This is what we’re doing when we celebrate our team landing a prized athlete from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic for millions less than that player’s true market value. We praise our favorite team’s shrewd negotiating skills and think nothing of the teenager who doesn’t get to negotiate under fair, unfettered labor standards. If anything, we declare these 16-year-olds lucky to get to play professional baseball and that they should feel grateful that they’ve been rescued from their otherwise less fortunate lives.

This is what we’re doing when we discuss student-athletes in America. When our favorite school lands a five-star, blue-chip prospect, we cheer. We never pause to consider the moral implications of a system that turns athletic departments into billion-dollar enterprises, while the players who make that value possible don’t get paid actual salaries for their work. What about the free education they get, we argue. What about the free shoes, free meals, the right to represent their school? These kids should feel grateful, we say, that they ever got the opportunity to play in the first place.

This is what we’re doing when we discuss the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL drafts. We hang on every word uttered by draft experts, and dissect each prospect’s every skill down to the nub, commoditizing their very existence. When our favorite team selects a player Mel Kiper likes, we cheer. We never stop to consider that maybe drafts are, in fact, immoral. We don’t take the time to wonder if players entering these drafts should be entitled to shop their services as they see fit, to anyone they want, the way people in other professions can. We never ponder that rookie spending caps benefit nobody except the billionaire owners of sports franchises, while suppressing the rights of workers. Instead, we hear how these kids finally get to realize their lifelong dreams … never mind if the terms of those dreams are set by other parties who want to take as much money and bargaining power away from them as possible.

This is also what we’re doing when we weigh in on athletes’ right to protest. We salute the flag and recite the anthem, secure in our comfortable lives, never having to consider those less fortunate than we are. We yell and curse and flip off TV sets and burn jerseys when we see athletes kneeling, sitting, linking arms or doing anything that might not precisely conform to what we believe should be done during the act of forced patriotism that is the pregame anthem. We don’t consider the plight of those with different backgrounds than ours, and how some athletes choose to protest in the names of those whose voices are never heard. We just want to watch our sports, and these ungrateful athletes are forcing us to think about uncomfortable things that have nothing to with nickel defenses and three-run homers. Damn them for doing that.

We can — we must — do better. The system is rigged to benefit ownership and punish labor, and that’s unacceptable. Abolishing the mechanisms that perpetuate that unfair system is a vital first step toward justice in sports.

Jonah goes on to give specific examples of how we can do better.

There’s an unfortunate tendency in parts of the left to be anti-sports, replete with post-college cool kid rejection of high school jocks, dismissive discussions of “sportsball,” and exceptions made for soccer because that’s the liberal internationalist sport for the American left. Of course, many leftists are sports fans as well. The one time I managed to get a pass for Netroots Nation, I saw Dave Zirin talk. He noted, correctly, that throughout all of human history, people have competed in athletic contests and that we needed to recapture the narrative and politics around sports instead of ceding it to right-wingers. By thinking of and treating athletes as exploited workers who need our solidarity at the same time that their work entertains us and enriches our lives, we go far to accomplish what Zirin and Keri call for. Moreover, it’s our duty to do so. Like sports or not, depending on your tastes, but it does as much as good to self-righteously walk away from sports because their current politics disgust us as it does to wear second-hand clothing in order to say you aren’t culpable for sweatshops. Both just make you feel good about yourself while doing absolutely nothing to help the people being exploited. Athletes are workers and the sooner we start thinking of them that way and doing our part to support their demands, including the right to protest police brutality and racism, the better off we all will be.

Now, let’s hope Jonah next uses his Hall of Fame superpowers for Edgar Martinez.

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