Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

Athletic Labour, Spectatorship, and Social Reproduction in the World of Professional Hockey

Document type Thesis
Author Kalman-Lamb, Nathan
Degree Ph.D., Social and Political Thought
Publisher York University; Toronto
Date 2016-02-08
Pages 322


Existing literature in the sociology of sport largely omits any discussion of the relation between the spectator and athlete in professional and high performance sport. This dissertation explores that relation, demonstrating that exploitation in athletic labour and the enduring allure of sport as spectacle are inextricably linked as part of a broader political economy. The labour of professional athletes is theorized as a form of social reproductive labour that offers affective/subjective renewal for fans. Spectators who experience isolation and alienation in their day-to-day lives as capitalist subjects come to sport seeking a sense of meaning, connection, and community. Athletic labour in professional sport provides this to them and enables them to continue to function as productive capitalist subjects by serving as an armature upon which an imagined athletic community of fans can be built. However, for social reproduction to occur for fans, athletes must sacrifice their bodies completely in the performance of their labour. It is only through this sacrifice that the imagined athletic community becomes concretized as something tangible and real and spectators become willing to spend their money on sports fandom. This theoretical understanding of athletic labour and spectatorship is explored through semi-structured qualitative interviews with eight former professional hockey players and eight spectators of sport. The testimony of former players consistently links the political economy of professional sport and the harm and exploitation they experienced in the course of their work. The testimony of spectators, on the other hand, typically fails to acknowledge that the meaning and pleasure derived from watching professional sport is predicated on the destruction of athletic bodies. This study ultimately suggests that a form of alienation exists between athletes and spectators. The spectator grasps for an elusive sense of community within a society structured to deny that form of connection by placing vicarious investment in the bodies of athletes. Yet, this act of investment instrumentalizes and commodifies the athlete. Athletes understand this process as it occurs because it denies them their humanity by transforming them into something both more (the heroic vessel) and less (the abject failure) than human.