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Erin Tarver’s The I in Team

Comment on Erin Tarver, The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity presented at SPEP, Pittsburgh, PA, October 31, 2019

In one scene in the teenage rom-com adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You, one character Michael (played by David Krumholtz) jokes about pictures of Shakespeare another character Mandella (played by Susan May Pratt) has hanging in her locker. She’s unamused, so he says, “No, because I know you’re a fan of Shakespeare.” “More than a fan,” She replied, “We’re involved.” I was put in mind of this scene reading Tarver’s account of the multidimensional meaning of “fan.” As Tarver explains, being a fan or fanatic in its origins was not a good thing. Mandella thinks “fan” too weak a word to describe her devotion to Shakespeare. “True fans” themselves might not think that the epithet “fan” sufficiently describes their devotion. They’re not fans. They’re involved.

Tarver’s book considers why we become so involved in this way. What’s in it for the fans? She argues that sports fandom is one of the primary ways of creating and reinforcing individual and community identities. Indeed, sports fandom is a practice of subjectivization. Sports fans subjectivize and are subjectivized as individuals and as members of their (white) communities, it turns out.

Describing the role that black masculinity has to play in this process, Tarver draws on Toni Morrison’s approach of investigating the role of images of blackness in producing white consciousness (3). White fans, Tarver argues, contribute to the reproduction of their whiteness in and through fan practices involving their imaginative relation to and ritualized display of people of color (4). Tarver describes, “This feeling of possession, or of intense, frenzied pleasure,” as “one that is no doubt familiar to many devoted sports fans who have had the experience of being present at the sacred space of the home field or court” (25). As Tarver explains, fans don’t watch as observers, but engage in light of their deep allegiance to a team not unlike the kinds of allegiances we feel to our families or our partners. Multiplied in a crowd, especially at a live sporting event, the effect is, as Tarver writes, “an emotional scene that has virtually no equal in contemporary life” (25). This is the scene of what Tarver calls, following Foucault, subjectivization. “Subjectivizing practices are means by which individuals both subordinate themselves to a discipline and, by virtue of it, achieve a sense of their own identities” (27). This process works from below rather than from above by habituating individuals into monitoring and policing their own behavior rather than being concerned by external threats (31).

Sports fandom involves a normalization of knowledge acquisition as one criterion for fans to differentiating themselves as fans from mere spectators. Tarver describes the sports fan as one who has mastery, who dominates through knowing when such power would not be available to him through physical force (38), a strategy that many men pursue when the road to physical domination is barred to them. Tarver notes the homosocial bonding of sports fandom where women’s sports fans are either excluded if they fail the various tests of fandom or included by the determination of men in ways that perpetuate the notion that men are the keepers of knowledge and of the common that is the sports venue, and often by extension, the community at large. As Tarver writes, “[T]he subjectivization accomplished in and through this practice normalizes masculinity: it creates an idealized norm to which individuals strive to conform and in relation to which they can be judged, ranked, rewarded, or excluded” (41). Women who try to enter this space as sports fans on their own terms appear to threaten the homosocial bonding of the space, making questionable the homosocial bonding that occurs (39). Articulating men’s investment in all-men spaces in general, Tarver notes in the last chapter on women fans that the presence of women and their emotional vulnerability keep men from being able to display their emotions in a way that is acceptably masculine (177). When there are fewer and fewer places of masculine homosociality, sport allows men to touch one another and express emotional vulnerability in ways that are otherwise forbidden by heterosexist norms (176).

At the same time sports fandom contributes to the constitution of a community and to the identity of that community, producing not only fandom but whiteness as spectacle (48). As Tarver writes, “We must ask whether southern football pride has in fact become a metonym for pride in the southern white aristocracy, as a mode of the further entrenchment of its power, or as,” quoting Bryan Curtis, “‘rebranded’ southern pride in which ‘we can [have solidarity] and can’t really be criticized for it” (Tarver 49-50, Curtis 2011). In chapters that follow, Tarver goes on to describe two of the key ways in which fans can seem to revere black men as athletes while still engaging in white supremacist practices. Through this analysis, Tarver shows how what might look like communal support for black men is in fact using them for the fans’ communal feeling while easily disregarding the interests of those black athletes who do the subjectivizing and identifying work for fans.

Tarver compares the treatment of the star athlete as a hero to the treatment of the star athlete as a mascot. She writes, “To treat a person as a mascot is, I will argue, to instrumentalize them in the service of communal identity, even as they are excluded from full membership in it. Hero worship, in contrast, conceives of its object as ‘one of us’, as belonging to the community in a representative rather than a commodified sense” (80). She buttresses her account of mascotting of athletes with a discussion of sports mascots, arguing that the role of the mascot is to unify a community that excludes those serving as mascots, and others from their group, as in the case of Native American mascots (75). She notes astutely that the defense for holding on to the Native American mascots that says the mascots are part of a community’s tradition was a tacit admission of the role mascots play for teams and fans (77). They do uphold a tradition, one of settler colonialism. Tarver draws on Malcolm X’s description in his Autobiography of his experience of feeling like a mascot in the chapter by that name. Tarver writes, “Being a mascot requires that one – like the pet ‘pink poodle’ to which Malcolm compares himself – give no indication of existing for or desiring purposes beyond those that serve the instrumentalizing community. A mascot who exists for himself is no mascot at all” (95). The mascot is the athlete who is required to serve the needs of the fans and denied any subjectivity of his own – it is noteworthy that mascots are almost by definition men since women athletes seem to escape the cathetic investment of the fan to see themselves dominating because the women athlete’s femininity would seem to foreclose that possibility, a situation that Tarver notes is a kind of ironic escape for the female athlete (200-202). Mascotting can function by quickly rejecting those who fail to fulfill the expectations of the fans, as in the case of Lebron James when he left Cleveland for Miami. Or it can function as a kind of virtue signaling or a sign that there are no problems as the mascotting of Michael Jordon shows (97). What Tarver locates in the mascotting is a “collective failure to recognize the role of other’s subordination or service in one’s own social position,” a failure that is “a persistent feature of whiteness and colonialism” (132). Tarver reminds us of Césaire’s equation of colonization with thingification and with the narcissitic focus of the Europeans on themselves to the extent that they are unable to recognize that “exploitation is a necessary condition for its continued existence” (133). Mascotting then seems to pretend it is hero worship while narcissistically forgetting how it depends on the black player as “lusory object” whose meaning is dependent on their role in the game rather than on their own being in the world. The hero by contrast is treated with a concern for their being beyond the sport, as Tim Tebow exemplifies. In fact, it is who he is beyond the sport that makes him a hero of white masculinity. By contrast black men who reject their mascotting role are portrayed as thugs, as in the case of Richard Sherman, and menaces to society, as in the case of Michael Vick (169).

Tarver’s distinction between the athlete treated as hero and athlete treated as mascot invites skepticism about the role that sports might have in bringing us together, as we commonly describe their role. But I want to ask about whether that role is entirely lost or whether this analysis might help us think further about what radical fandom could be. And my road through thinking that will be through conceptions of the festival and the crowd.

That well-known philosopher of sport, G.W.F. Hegel, describes the festival as the living embodiment of the essence of the community in The Phenomenology of Spirit (¶725, Pinkard translation).

The beautiful fencer is indeed the honor of his particular people, but he is an embodied individuality in which the comprehensiveness and seriousness of meaning, along with the inner character of the spirit which underlies the particular life, interests, needs, and mores of his people has met its downfall. In bacchanalian enthusiasm, the self is external to itself, but in beautiful embodiment, it is the spiritual essence… In this self-emptying into complete embodiment, spirit has cast off the particular impressions and echoes of nature, which, as the actual spirit of the people, it encompassed within itself. Its people thus are no longer conscious of their particularity within that spirit, but rather, in casting off this particularity, they are conscious of the universality of their human existence. ¶727

The fencer captures in his particular being the character of the people, but still remains an individual. Indeed, the problem with the fencer is that the fencer for the fencer’s own self-consciousness refuses to be merely for the spectator, for the fan. The fencer insists on also being for himself and this causes a shift away from the fencer as fulfilling Spirit in its fullness and prompts Hegel to turn to what is happening with the crowd.

I also want to think with Hegel about what is happening with the crowd, but I see in this shift away from the fencer the question of whether the problem is that we tend to mascot some players and hero-worship others or if the more profound problem is, as Charles Barkley—and my Sixer fandom requires me to let you know that I met him when I was in fifth grade when he visited my Philadelphia public elementary school, which apparently he was doing begrudgingly since he famously later said that he did not want to be and wasn’t paid to be a role model—, in fact Barkley’s “I’m not a role model,” well captured the problem of trying to make athletes have to stand for more than themselves, have to stand for us, as heroes and exemplars, and refusing them the space to stand just as themselves.

Yet this same passage points to how the athlete as the particular catalyzes the people to cast off their own particularity, to no longer be conscious of their particularity and instead in the frenzy of the athletic event / festival to feel conscious of their unity with one another. indeed, “the universality of their human existence.” Tarver’s account would seem to suggest that this universalizability in the face of the frenzied festival is impossible because the universality is always a false one – it seeks the unity of a group, a group that considers itself universal in a way that functions to maintain its discriminatory power, either at the expense of an athlete who is not of the same group or through an athlete considered to be a member of the same group and thus in this case the particularity both of the group and the athlete remain. Is Tarver rejecting the festival’s capacity to universalize altogether on Hegel’s terms? And what might that mean for further political implications of the festival? Is there no unifying possibility of the community that doesn’t carry these particularities with it? Or rather, what conditions might be required for that consciousness of the universality of human existence to become possible? What do we lose if we never can accomplish that consciousness?

Hegel continues in the next paragraph,

The spirits of a people, who become conscious of the shape of their essence in a particular animal [the fencer I assume], merge into one spirit; in that way, the particular beautiful spirits of a people combine themselves into a Pantheon whose element and abode is language. The pure intuition of itself as universal humanity in the actuality of the spirit of a people has the form of the spirit of a people which then joins with others, and together they constitute by means of nature one nation and forge a common undertaking. For this work, it forms a collective people and in so doing, a collective heaven. This universality which spirit attains in its existence is nonetheless merely this first universality which initially starts out from the individuality of ethical life, since it has not yet overcome its immediacy and formed a single state out of these separate tribes. The ethical life of the actual spirit of a people rests partly on the immediate trust of the individuals in the whole of their people, partly in the immediate participation which all, irrespective of differences of estate, take in the resolutions and business of their government. Within the union, which is initially not that of a persisting order but that of a union merely for a common action, that freedom of participation of each and all is temporarily set aside. This first communal endeavor is thus more of an assembly of individualities than it is the dominion of abstract thought, which would rob individuals of their self-conscious participation in the willing and acts of the whole. ¶727

The fencer, the athlete—here, I read animal in Hegel as the living thing—makes the people aware of themselves as a people, who as a result can merge into one spirit. Not just a particular group but of “universal humanity,” which overcomes differences. This common undertaking forms a collective people, and in so doing, a collective heaven. There is so much to unpack in this passage, but I just want to point to two things that Tarver’s analysis complicates for us. First is whether this universal humanity that departs from the fencer excludes the fencer and what this tells us about how the unity of a people depends on those it excludes in sports fandom, but also in other kinds of fandom and mascotting. Hegel wants this universalizing to transcend the differences of “separate tribes,” in order to accomplish a unity not just of a nation-state but of universal humanity. But the nation-state has long shown its inability to include all of humanity when it based that inclusion on a collective departure based on the “shared spirits” of a people. Particularly telling is how this universality must reduce its catalyst to the living thing or animal.

Yet at the same time, I wonder whether Tarver takes issue with the Hegelian structure of producing the universal from the singular being, or with which singular being the universal is produced from. When Badiou approaches an account of subjectivization of a universal political, he does so through a road that produces a universal from the excluded and uncounted and conceives of a universal thought from the position of the excluded (Metapolitics 2005, 150, 115, The Communist Hypothesis 2008). Is there place in Tarver’s analysis for a fandom that could work in this way?

Second, Hegel speaks of setting aside the freedom of participation of each and all. While this passage will go on to discuss the role of the epic in capturing this particular made universal, Hegel thinks the Bacchanalian festival as a moment which begins with an assembly of individualities and moves toward something unified and in excess of the mere joining of individuals. This moment that exceeds collective individuality could be thought as the belonging of the group still marked by traits that set it apart – whiteness, masculinity, the identifying markers of the sports fan. But could it also be thought as a moment that rejects the subjectivization as an individual and embraces subjectivization from the crowd? A subjectivization that might also lend itself toward subjectivizing from the position of the excluded?

Jodi Dean talks about the liberative political possibilities of the crowd in ways that reflect the possibilities of the protest march. I want to know whether for Tarver these could also be the political possibilities of the sports crowd.

Dean draws on the work of Gustave Le Bon who argues in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind for thinking of the crowd as what Dean calls “a distinct form of collectivity. The crowd is not a community. It doesn’t rely on traditions. It doesn’t have a history. The crowd is not held together by unstated norms or an obscene supplement that extends beyond its own immediacy (although crowd images and symbols clearly shape the reception and circulation of crowd events). Rather, the crowd is a temporary collective being. It holds itself together affectively via imitation, contagion, suggestion, and a sense of its own invincibility. Because the crowd is a collective being, it cannot be reduced to singularities. On the contrary, the primary characteristic of a crowd is its operation as a force of its own, like an organism. The crowd is more than an aggregate of individuals. It is individuals changed through the torsion of their aggregation, the force aggregation exerts back on them to do together what is impossible alone” (Dean, 9). The crowd is the site of resistance to the individuation the ideology of capitalism accomplishes (79). “If the subject is interpellated as an individual, the strengths of many become the imaginary attributes of one. The individual appears as the locus of a capacity for innovation and interruption that is only ever an effect of collectivities.” (113) “Crowds exert force or, better, they are a force of desire exerted by collectivity. When they amass in spaces authorized by neither capital nor the state, they breach the given, installing a gap of possibility. The presence of a crowd is a positive expression of negation. People act together in ways impossible for individuals, a phenomenon that preoccupied the early twentieth-century crowd theorists.” (124)

Now whether sports crowds amass in ways not authorized by capital or the state is certainly questionable. But I think there is still room here to think about sports crowds as sites of possibility for progressive politics.

LOS ANGELES – DECEMBER 25: Allen Iverson #3 of the Philadelphia 76ers shoots the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California on December 25, 2001. The Lakers won, 88-82. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

For example, I think about Dean’s analysis when I think about the 2001 Sixers Championship run where they ultimately lost to the Lakers. I grew up working class in Philadelphia, a city whose politics and geography are riven with racial strife. It’s a tough city. Gritty even, you might say. But the championship run created fellow feeling, unifying fans in a crowd who could collectively boo Beyonce for wearing a Laker’s jersey and cheer our small but fearless point-guard Allan Iverson through so many games in which we won from way way behind. That month of those several series Philadelphians felt differently united in affect for a common cause. Allen Iverson was beloved by the city, and not just because he led the team through a winning season, but also because his Norfolk youth made him very familiar to gritty Philadelphians. Philadelphians followed the events of his life off the court even long after he left the team. That press conference the year after the championship run where Iverson complained that the press was giving him a hard time for showing up late or not showing up to practice and that they weren’t even talking about a game, “not a game where I got out there and play every game like it was my last” – Philadelphians were with Iverson against the sports press. Perhaps it was because Iverson made most Philadelphians feel like he represented them and so it wasn’t really about Iverson. But I think it could also be that the fans were unified in a kind of resistance with Iverson. “We not even talkin’ bout the game, the actual game, when it matters.” I think we are seeing in some fan response to football players who kneel a similar subject formation out of a crowd. The individual players in this schema are like the party representative speaking for the whole, rather than a mascot. That whole team in 2001, Eric Snow, Aaron 6th-man McKee, Dikembe Mutombo, they were fighting for us, not big enough to be heroes and not different enough from the city to be mascots. I wonder if there can be places in which things are different or possibilities for being different, for following stories of down and out players, and feeling like those stories are emblematic of a city and its trials. When Dean speaks of the Party as the voice of the crowd, I think she offers resources for reversing the situation. Could it be that the players articulate the needs of the crowd and what would that look like?

This is what I think Badiou means by a universal political subject formed out of the recognition of the uncounted (Trott 2011). I also see this kind of collectivity being formed by sports fans who took up Colin Kaepernick’s call to boycott the NFL.

I wonder further whether there is possibility for something like what Jennifer Nash calls in the context of representations of black women “recovery work,” wherein fandom and sport itself as a project can be “both the space of objectification and the locus of remedying the objectification. Recovery work maintains an unshakeable political faith in self-representation, which is imagined to undo the violence of dominant representation” (Nash 2014, 56).  In this way, recovery work could return some of the agency to the players.

Some of the ways that Tarver describes the liberating possibilities of women both as athletes and as fans might already point to these possibilities. As Tarver writes, “women tend to know sports fandom as a means of social bonding, as a set of practices that increase feelings of love, connection, and community…women often recognize the larger set of social practices—the rituals, the traditions, the means of cultivating family and group identity—as meaningful, and perhaps as the underlying reason for participating in the spectacle of the games at all” (178). Tarver describes women’s knowledge of this kind as a threat to homosocial and hypermasculine sports fandom (178). As this kind of threat it also seems like a fruitful place for thinking about how the crowd can produce politically liberative ways of being. Tarver notes how women’s sports have become a gathering place for queer people, both participating in them as in the lesbian softball league, and as fans, as queer people have flocked to the WNBA. The recent watching parties and celebrations of the US Women’s team during their World Cup run is another good example. Women’s sports are important in one sense because the increased visibility allows women to see themselves on the court or field in a way that offers an alternative to “the second sex” experience where women only experience their subjectivity as objects (197). Tarver questions the legitimacy of sex-based segregation in sport, in a move that makes increasing sense in light of last spring’s decision by the IAAF to demand Caster Semenya control her testosterone levels. And her argument suggests that the segregation serves to further produce masculine subjectivity.

The two questions I would like to put to Tarver are:

  1. Is the problem with the structure of finding the universal in the particular or is the problem with which particular the universal is formed out of and thus can a revolutionary politics work in this way by forming the collective from the marginalized, oppressed and excluded, in sport as anywhere else?
  2. I take it that Tarver would agree that there is no individual without subjectivization. So how we get subjectivized as individuals is both about how we get subjectivized as part of specific communities and as separate from one another. Is the problem that sport can’t achieve this kind of politics from the experience of specific communities and how we become separated from one another and come to see ourselves as individuals rather as collectives with power to resist oppressive systems? In this light, it seems like sport fandom is a place that is producing collectivities. Recognizing how fraught those collectivities are, is the problem that sport produces collectivities or is the problem what collectivities are produced? What conditions would we need to see sport fandom as a site for subjectivizing collectives for the sake of resisting a world that would divide us from one another under white supremacist patriarchal heterosexist ableist capitalism?

I am grateful to Tarver for this book, which does a good job of bringing philosophy into the public sphere in ways that make it both rigorous and what my evangelical roots lead me to call “convicting”. It’s a good model for all of us.

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