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Sports Fandom and Capitalist Alienation


As the World Cup has captured the globe’s attention over the past few weeks, the fervor of the fans in the stands has received almost as much screen time as the efforts of the players on the field. At the blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books, sports scholar Nathan Kalman-Lamb examines the intense emotional investment of sports fans, arguing that it too often functions as compensation for the isolation and dreariness of everyday capitalist life. Read an except from the piece below, or the full text here.

If C.L.R. James views sports spectatorship as a means — for cultivating aesthetic appreciation and political awaking — Bill Simmons understands fandom as an end — the central organizing principle of his meaning and purpose. This is a profound and deeply disturbing shift, and it has everything to do with the increasingly dehumanizing conditions of capitalist life over the past 50 years in North America. Isolation, alienation, and anxiety-provoking precarity have become defining features of existence under neoliberal capitalism. In this context, the appeal of fandom becomes clear: it offers a reprieve from the degradation of everyday life. While most capitalist work is alienating, in that it is typically performed for the benefit of someone else, the fantasy of sports fandom suggests that the team and its players function as avatars for the self. Thus, fans imagine themselves to be the team — its triumphs achieved through the labor of others ultimately appropriate to themselves, while its failures represent a personal undoing. Indeed, for many fans, accustomed to being themselves exploited for labor, this is one of the very few moments when they can, as it were, play the capitalist, reaping the benefits of another’s work. Likewise, while capitalism isolates, producing exchange relations and competitive dynamics between people, fandom seductively offers the promise of collective belonging within the fantastical construct of the “team.”

Image: English soccer fans cheer on their team during the World Cup semifinal match. Via