Let’s start with this: professional sport exists as commodity spectacle because fans want to watch. And, if the political economy of athletic labor is predicated on the existence of a spectatorial market, then ethical questions in the realm of high-performance spectator sport require a consideration of why fans watch. My research for the book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport (2018) found through interviews with both former professional hockey players and fans that the bodily harm suffered by athletes in the course of their labor serves to validate the economic and emotional investments of fans in athletic spectacle, but at great affective, psychological, and physical cost to athletes. It is in this sense that I understand high-performance spectator sport as exploitation: the production of the commodity requires harm to the worker.
So, what is to be done?
Josh Begley's short film "Concussion Protocol" offers an answer in the form of a direct assault on the pleasure fans extract from violence. The film, released just before the 2018 Super Bowl, is a compilation of every concussion in the 2017 NFL season. Begley strips these devastating moments of the cheerleader framing offered by the sport-industrial complex television coverage and then defamiliarizes them by playing them in reverse motion – a technique that both centers the violence of concussions and eliminates the possibility viewers might enjoy what they are seeing, even if trained to do so. He pairs the footage with haunting music that evokes the claustrophobia one might feel when trapped in a helmet after suffering such a trauma, challenging viewers to identify with the harm suffered by the concussed athlete.
“Concussion Protocol” is thus a powerful rebuke to normalized modes of athletic fandom. I know this because students in my classes on social inequality and sports tell me so. One student wrote in response to the film of having seen one of the injuries when it initially occurred: “because the player that was hit was not a member of my team and I was focused primarily on my team’s winning the game, I quickly forgot about [it]. Upon seeing the same clip in this video, I remembered [it], and I was emotionally affected by it. To me, this brings up the question of how much we compromise our morals/empathy when consuming sport. In my daily life, I would rush to help someone who got a concussion in some way, but because I saw it happen on TV to someone on my least favorite team in the NFL, I somehow lost any sort of empathy.”
If the alienated relationship between spectator and athlete is grounded in the ways sports culture invites fans to dehumanize the athlete as an avatar for their desires, re-humanization and empathy are meaningful interventions. “Concussion Protocol” offers an example of how that ambition is more than just a vanishing point.
Students consented to have their response testimony used in this study according to an IRB protocol.