College sports fans as fuel for change

As many of y’all reading this know, I’m a rowdy and unreasonable fan of college basketball, particularly UNC men’s basketball, the ACC, March Madness, and plenty of other indefensible components of an indefensible operation.

But I’m also someone who believes there’s no truly ethical consumption, and that in that sense we’re pretty much slogging our way through late-stage capitalism, picking our battles and doing our best, within and beyond the world of sports.

Yet even in that context, in which it’s easy enough to abandon an ethical or political compass whenever convenient, we ought to ask ourselves: Why am I a fan, a consumer of this product? Or maybe even, how am I a fan?

Often, when it comes to sports, if we know, we know, right? We can barely help it. Many people have made the comparison between a love of sports or a particular sports team and being religious: If you believe, you believe, and if you don’t, those who do are lunatics.

But to sports’ credit, in a world in which camaraderie and joy seem further and further away, harder and harder to find and to hold on to, sports continue to provide them: They preserve the ties shared between old friends and they build unlikely bonds between strangers; they help maintain love and pride for a hometown; they promise unmatched thrill and drama, elation and heartbreak; and the list goes on and on.

It’s cliche and it goes without saying that sports bring people together, and for many that’s enough to look past any ethical shortcomings. But we need to remember that sports can do something else, too.

College athletics, “amateurism,” the NCAA — every shade of that system needs enormous reform. But knowing that, what’s our ethical or our political move? Do we turn up our noses and turn off our TVs, sure that our individual boycott keeps our conscience clean, or that if everyone did this justice would arrive and the world would become a sparkling, utopian place?

No. Like any exploitative workplace, like any host of injustice, sports can become sites of struggle. And it’s at this point of production, not at the point of consumption, that college athletics deserve our action.

No one turned away from the US Women’s World Cup team in order to boycott the fact that the organization wasn’t paying them enough. Instead, they embraced the team, they embraced the sport and the players that they love, and as soon as the players’ resistance to an unjust system emerged, the fans embraced that, too. The fate of that movement has yet to be decided, but the outpouring of support — from the thunderous applause at parades to social media campaigns, from the rampant solidarity with Megan Rapinoe to those in the stands whose chants changed from “U.S.A.” to “Equal pay” — has made an important, maybe tide-turning contribution.

And why shouldn’t we want the same thing for college sports? Instead of removing ourselves as consumers — a very passive boycott — and sacrificing that camaraderie and joy (and sorrow) that help sustain us, why don’t we demand of ourselves that we speak out against the racialized, hyper-exploitative nature of the NCAA? Why don’t we maintain our love for the game and its players, and through that adoration, as its fans, seek out those moments of resistance, and uplift them? Why don’t we toil to make public our support for a world in which players can begin to speak out, organize, unionize, withhold their labor, and whatever else may come?

As with any labor group, particularly the hyper-exploited and uncompensated, a path through which much-needed reform comes via the self-organization of workers would be infinitely stronger, more democratic and more permanent reform than one coming from the top down. This is true for college sports, where it will take the self-organization of student athletes, not top-down reform from the NCAA and the conferences and their boards and presidents and athletic directors, which would only amount to crumbs sprinkled around to make an unpalatable system somehow more justifiable. The latter would be a move that only aspires to make those straying away from college sports comfortable with a new exploitative norm, unclutch their pearls, renew their season tickets and turn their TVs back on.

College athletes could rattle the world. They really could. They could lend (and have lent) a hand in fighting racial and gender imbalances; they could lend a voice to the other rampant injustices across academia, across class relations, across the American South,  across many other arenas of oppression.

But their influence and their potential as an engine for change are as muzzled as they are powerful. They need to be aware of our supporta perception of our solidarity at their first steps — rather than see us turning our backs on them and their sites of struggle in a grab at purity.

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