Toward a Sociology of the Sport Spectator: A Rare and Patented Argument (Part Three of Three)

by Eli S. EVANS

[ A continuation. Part One, Part Two ]

A matter of interest from the world of sport:

There is a basketball player on the University of Cincinnati’s basketball team by the name of Jihad Mohammed. I saw him play for the first time about a month ago, when I was at my parents’ house in Milwaukee, and since that time I have been wrestling with myself to find a way of translating the tone or tenor of that name into the terminology of another religion. Crusading Christ, for instance. But I feel somehow as though to crusade implies a sort of forward movement—a movement across territory, starting in one place and ending up in another—whereas as Jihad is something more static, something that takes into account the whole all at once, and on those grounds I have considered something like Inquisition Christ, or, even, Inquisitor Christ, but the problem with the Inquisition, as opposed to a Jihad, is the power dynamic. An Inquisition seems to involve the structure of power asserting itself by rooting out and destroying the impurities in its own body—a body that is inherently pure but infected, as it were, by that which prevents it from being so—whereas a Jihad, I think, implies something more along the lines of a rising up. It is power itself which is corrupt or impure in the Jihad, while it is a priori pure with the Inquisition. Beyond that, although Christ and Mohammed are both central figures in their respective religions, there is the important difference, this important difference being that Christ is presented as God himself—the Trium, I’ve been told—whereas Mohammed is not. Perhaps we should try another religion: Zionist Moses, for instance.

Perhaps we should simply stand for a moment in inspired awe of such an awesome, awe inspiring name; perhaps we should make like queer theorists and refuse to attempt to reproduce it.

I was once a graduate student at the University of Arizona and have, in the years since, retained my affection for its basketball team. Last year, the starting lineup for that basketball team included a guard by the name of Mustafa, another guard by the name of Salim, a forward by the name of Hassan, and, finally, a second forward, an eastern European, with the last name Radenovich.

This, then, was my joke last year: their starting lineup reads like a no-fly list. When I watched the first day of the NCAA tournament last year at my friend Jesse’s house—he had ordered, as a supplement to his Satellite Dish television, the all-access tournament pass—it garnered a number of chuckles and even a full-blown laugh or two, all from Jesse himself, since he was the only other person in the room.


Evidence in support of my claim that people who are or desire to be vaguely associated with the academic call Adorno’s essay “Free Time” Adorno’s essay on free time in the form of sentences taken from pieces of writing turned up by an internet search on the words “free time” and “adorno”:

“Frankfurt School curmudgeon Theodor Adorno would say no. In his essay on free time, Adorno makes the point that the nefarious culture industries and capitalism have so taken over our lives that our "free" time is now highly constructed and its defining characteristic is that we’re not working.”

“BTW, if you haven’t read Adorno’s essay on free time you should.”

Actually, those are the only two I could find—the rest contained appropriate references to Adorno’s essay, “Free Time”—but I would prefer to stand by my claim nonetheless, in the hope that my insistence upon referring to it as “Free Time” as opposed to “his essay on free time” constitutes a writerly or even intellectual posture that is neither common nor deviant; but, rather, rare.


And, the last of these short little sections, bits of text from the website for the cable sports network ESPN, primarily in the form of promises:

“Peja’s numbers are down and his injuries are up. But if he can regain anywhere near his All-Star status he will be a big plus.”

“You’ll see. Lots of folks will be writing the same about Sacramento’s Geoff Petrie when Ron-Ron’s run with the Kings ends in rubble.”

“When the Lakers play the Nets on March 17, VC might want to come up with another ‘injury’ so that Kobe doesn’t break Wilt’s other record on him.”


We offer our predictions and promises to gamble our authority and legitimacy—we will win more or lose some of what we already have—and we watch, I suppose, in order to find out what happens. But if we are interested in what Adorno himself called a “sociology of the sport spectator,” then, to use my own formulation, the question becomes not so much how or even why we watch, but rather what makes it worth watching? Thorstein Veblen—who, like me, was born in Wisconsin—suggested, in his book called A Theory of the Leisure class—as opposed to saying, for instance, “suggested, in his theory of the leisure class”—that sports function as a kind of link between the ethics and aesthetics of exploit on which the leisure class as we know it today—as he knew it in his day, that is—is founded and the rather massive and diffuse workaday middle class that it has since become, and, I would venture, for the most part remains. Athletics, he wrote, had become a rival, in institutions of higher learning—bastions of the leisure class—to the classics themselves, indeed had “an obvious advantage over the classics for the purpose of leisure-class learning, since success as an athlete presumes, not only a waste of time, but also a waste of money, as well as the possession of certain highly unindustrial archaic traits of character and temperament.” To be a fan instead of an actual athlete, then, presumes what Veblen shows is a typical evolution of leisure toward conservation and displacement, toward delaying and redistributing one’s own leisure time. I am too busy to use my leisure time so, instead, these other people—not surprisingly a large percentage of them are minorities and immigrants, people from not middle class but lower class backgrounds, themselves lacking in the resources to delay and redistribute their own leisure time, and people, therefore, who therefore use it—will use it for me. This comes much closer to formulating a sociology of the sport spectator—and indeed came before Adorno’s essay called, and not necessarily on, “Free Time”—but, I think, for all its insight, just misses the mark. Here is what I think: A sporting event, a game, aims toward an outcome as its final determination—one team, or player, will win, and the other team, or player, will lose. This is the outcome. This, athletes and analysts will, falsely, tell you (often during the build-up to a competition of significance, or a season of competition) is all that matters: who wins and who loses. But what determines the outcome? The players, of course, competing within the parameters of both the determined field of play and the determine rules of engagement. But what else? Can we ever say exactly what has determined the outcome of, for example, a sporting competition, and what has had nothing to do with it? At some point, usually in high school, one may learn that a butterfly flaps its wings in Kansas and a hundred years later a hurricane rips through a village in China. It is impossible to ever know what tiny mutations or permutations, which miniscule interventions, will turn out—even if it can never be proven—to have proven decisive in the outcome. Even after the fact, it is impossible to know. When I miss a game—and because, until two days ago, I was not equipped with either cable television or, even, a television antennae in my own apartment, I have missed a number of games, even countless games, to say nothing of the pick-up games and invented games, for example piss poor, that I am missing at every moment, in every or any corner of the world, some contiguous living room and dining room or dirt lot in a distant land like Kenya—I can, later, find out who won and who lost—even the precise score of that determination—but I can never know whether it would have been the same if I had seen it. Today, as opposed to the writer for the website for the cable sports network ESPN, I might predict, to a friend, or in a piece of writing for public consumption, that Kobe Bryant will not score more than a hundred points when the Lakers play the Nets on March 17—two days after my sister’s twenty-sixth birthday, as a matter of fact, and there is a chance she will be celebrating it in Kenya—and eventually that day will come, and, if I am still alive, on or after that day I will know whether or not he indeed did score more than a hundred points; but I will never know whether if I had never made the prediction that I have here made the outcome would have been different. The sport spectator watches and, of course, he talks—he analyzes—but if we want our sociology of him, we will have to ask ourselves what makes doing these things worthwhile.

The answer, I suspect, is not so far from the leaded cabinetry and exposed breakables in the living room and dining room of my parents’ house in Milwaukee, hovering at the edges or boundaries of every game of piss poor. Like them, the world as it might be is precious, fragile, and exposed, and every intervention we make into it threatens—like that pink ball, like the floating halo of a Caucasian breast, between throw and bounce and catch—to destroy it before it ever was.

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