On the Ethics of Sports Spectatorship, and Other Musings

A collage (with credits) of the life and death matters tied up in sporting mega-events. Clockwise from top left: Danish players guard their fallen teammate, Christian Eriksen, as he receives treatment for a cardiac arrest (photo by Friedemann Vogel). Protestors speak out against the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (photo by Yuichi Yamazaki). A World Cup stadium under construction in Qatar (photo by K. Abou Mehri).

On the Ethics of Sports Spectatorship

This summer, sports are going back in time. The Tokyo Olympics, still known as the “2020 Olympics,” are slated to go ahead despite widespread resistance across Japan. Much of that resistance is driven by fears of a rise in COVID-19 cases, which could be a big problem for a country with a very low vaccination rate. Unfortunately for them, only the International Olympic Committee has the right to cancel the Games. That’s right: contractually speaking, a sovereign nation does not have the right to cancel the Olympics happening within its own borders. Meanwhile, soccer’s European Championships, “EURO 2020,” has continued with its original pan-continental setup, with matches taking place in eleven cities as far apart as Seville, Spain and Baku, Azerbaijan. In addition to putting teams through a thicket of contradictory health and safety measures, many of the host nations have welcomed fans back to their stadiums. While some, such as Denmark, had some justification thanks to good numbers, even they have seen some fans contract the new Delta variant. Scotland, meanwhile, has tied nearly 2,000 new cases to fans who traveled to matches, mostly at Wembley Stadium; many of those fans went against government warnings and traveled to London despite not even having tickets. Then there’s the Copa America, South America’s continental soccer championship, which pulled out of Colombia and Argentina at the last minute and moved instead to Brazil, one of the worst-hit countries in the world, despite criticism from the host nation’s own much-beloved team. This is the same country that hosted a World Cup (2014) and Olympic Games (2016) back to back, which required enormous financial investments in stadiums and facilities that are largely unused. It’s also currently under the rule of President Jair Bolsonaro, who, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, is implementing a vehemently right-wing agenda.

Unfortunately, authoritarian politics and high costs for host countries, in addition to the militarization of public space and widespread labor abuses – looking at you, World Cup 2022 in Qatar – are standard practices for these sporting mega-events. Once again, the old adage that “sports aren’t political” is demonstrably false. (Even my going to two sporting events in D.C., a welcome if tentative return to “normalcy,” is made possible by a myriad of political decisions regarding land, economics, and vaccination distribution.) With all that in mind, I have been asking myself how I can be an ethical spectator of these mega-events, knowing the dangers involved in staging them. Can I, as a performance studies scholar, truly critique these events through my cheers? I would like to think the answer is yes, which is why I decided the least I could do was try to hold the beautiful and the ugly in tension, mostly by spending way too much time on Twitter alternating between commenting on EURO 2020 games and posting coverage on the COVID-19 and political shenanigans behind the scenes. Despite my low follower count and suspicions about Twitter activism, I decided the exercise would at least attune me to a kind of critical spectatorship that could prove useful to my dissertation and act as a platform for further action ahead of Qatar 2022.

Of course, there remains a strong argument that the only way to ethically engage in any exploitative practice is to not engage at all. The problem there is that tuning out is easier said than done, especially when, no matter what individual choices we make, elite sport will play on no matter the circumstances. This was made very apparent when Christian Eriksen, the star of the Danish national team, suffered a cardiac arrest while on the pitch in Denmark’s opening EURO 2020 match against Finland. In an astounding scene, Eriksen’s teammates stood in a circle around their fallen friend as the medical team fought to revive him, many of them struggling to remain calm through the tears. Some broke away at one point to intercept Eriksen’s distraught partner when she rushed to the sidelines. Throughout it all, fans in the stadium stood on in silent horror, while the commentators calling the match did their best to maintain composure, offering grave reminders that “football is just a game.” That same refrain was repeated over and over again throughout the day: “football is just a game.” When the match was finally suspended and ESPN’s coverage turned back to the studio, it was all the pundits could say: “football is just a game.” I know all this happened because despite the Danish team’s efforts to protect Eriksen’s privacy and despite the calls from some the commentators to cut away, the camera stayed on. I know it stayed on because I stayed in my seat, watching and waiting to see what would happen next. Call it shock, call it grim fascination, call it marveling at the solidarity shown by the team and supporters – whatever it was, I did not turn away.

Fortunately, Eriksen survived and received treatment at the Copenhagen hospital conveniently overlooking the stadium. Unfortunately, despite the evident trauma of the event, the Danish players were forced to make a choice: pick up the match that day and play on as if nothing had happened or pick it up the following day and play on as if nothing had happened. Fearing the shear exhaustion of waiting and wondering, the players apparently decided to continue that day, and ended up losing to tournament debutants Finland. Thankfully for the Danes, that was not the end of their journey: with Eriksen watching in recovery, they bounced back from another loss to Belgium by thrashing Russia in the last group game and thrashing Wales in the second round. Maybe they’re taking out their anger on UEFA, the European game’s governing body, by going all the way in the most peculiar circumstances, just like they did when Yugoslavia’s collapse in 1992 had UEFA calling them up to take their place.

Whatever happens next, Denmark’s situation accentuates one thing: that the sports-industrial complex, the vast network of political, economic, scientific, and cultural powers that enable massive governing bodies like UEFA and the IOC, will always play on. At some level, maybe I wanted to keep watching so I could confirm that for myself. But then, I already knew that would happen, didn’t I? It was proven before the match, before the tournament, even started. For all the reminders that it is “just a game,” football continues on in the face of mortal danger, not just for the love of the game but for the love of the money guaranteed by lucrative sponsorship and broadcast contracts. That’s why the camera stays on and that’s why the pundits have to fill their time with half-hearted reminders that it’s all “just a game,” even though they know the game will go on after a very close, very public brush with death.

Sports have a peculiar relationship with reality. They get cast as war, as art, as a matter of life and death, right up until real life and death matters encroach on their terrain. Then they’re just games. But life and death are always going on behind the scenes, too. A ball hasn’t even been kicked in Qatar and thousands of migrant workers have already lost their lives since the country was awarded the World Cup. Nevertheless, it will play on, just like EURO 2020, the Tokyo Olympics, the Copa America, and all the rest. And many of us, myself included, will continue to watch, so long as we are given the platform to do so. Christian Eriksen’s heart attack helped me prove that to myself this summer. What I actually do with that witness is a work in progress.

Other Musings

More Like PTC’s The Wolves, Please. Last month, I published a Theatre Journal review of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves as staged by Philadelphia Theatre Company. Originally slated for an in-person production, this story of a girls’ indoor soccer team navigating a challenging, not to mention the thickets of young adulthood, made a surprisingly smooth transition to the virtual realm. In fact, by putting a play that normally depends on an abundance of space into Brady Bunch Zoom boxes, PTC’s production illustrated how a shift into the virtual realm can refresh our understanding of plays we think we already know. Rather than watch from a voyeuristic remove while the girls practiced in an arena, as I did at the Goodman Theatre in 2018, I was instead consumed by DeLappe’s rush of teenage chatter gushing out of a wall of unfamiliar faces. It was overwhelming and isolating, just like it must have been for #46, the new girl in the group. I came to realize that as much as the play is about a shared spaced, it is also about a struggle to connect, a fact brilliantly accentuated by the Zoom boxes and the photographic backgrounds that never quite matched up with their neighbors’. In short, PTC’s production illuminated a play I thought I already knew fairly well. This is one of the many reasons why I hope virtual theatre – or just “theatre” as some prefer to call it – will stick around in some form or fashion. Apart from expanding access, virtual productions have the ability to stimulate audiences in very different ways. Some of that comes from advances in technology that blur the lines between realities, some of it from highlighting the limitations of digital connectivity. If nothing else, the voices of PTC’s superb cast have been living rent-free in my mind as I write my dissertation. Thank heavens I was able to watch them workout more than once.

The (Un)Realities of In the Heights. The onscreen arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’s In the Heights is the kind of thing most theatre-folk have to take note of. Though I came in unfamiliar with the show, there are a couple of things that jumped out to me about the film and the resulting discourse around it. The first is the way director John Chu and his team embraced magical realism in many of the numbers. While not all instances are particularly good – the wig mannequins turning their heads in “No Me Diga” had major haunted house vibes – and while there was not much internal consistency in how reality got warped, I appreciated that the film leaned into the way musicals already flaunt realistic conventions. Why not send massive banners over the tops of the neighborhood in “It Won’t Be Long Now” or dance up the walls in “When the Sun Goes Down” if it accentuates how the characters feel? Ironically, a lack of reality has been a sticking point in criticism of the film, particularly in regard to the dearth of Afro-Latinx performers, which is notable for a story set in the predominately Black neighborhood of Washington Heights. This, in addition to changes in the script that eliminated confrontations of anti-Black racism, has placed the film into a broader discourse on how colorism touches the many groups that make up Latinidad. As Miranda himself acknowledged, these are criticisms worth listening to, though it it is also worth being wary of the weight of expectation placed on films touted as feats of Representation-with-a-capital-R. Bearing in mind that I speak from a position of astounding privilege when it comes to representation, it should go without saying that no single Hollywood film can truly capture all the shades and nuances of any people group, let alone serve as an accurate barometer for true political empowerment. As others have pointed out, the reaction to the film is as much an indictment of a cultural landscape where Latinx stories are scarce as it is anything else. Nevertheless, it is also worth remembering that levels of reality hit differently depending on who is in the story and how it gets told. Audiences are often happy to go along with the magic of movies, but they are just as likely to call out one that makes a disputable claim to a reality the audience knows very well.

Building a Syllabus with the Students. This Fall, I’ll be teaching Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre, a course that introduces students to dramaturgy and script analysis while exposing them to a wide range of Western theatre styles throughout history. There’s a lot to cover, which means tough choices have to be made when it comes to drawing up a syllabus. To help me make those choices, I’ve decided to have the students help me fill in our reading list. A lot of that will involve them simply weighing in on what plays they’ve already read from the different “slots.” If most of them have already read Macbeth, for example, then that leaves me room to do Twelfth Night instead. This will help me ensure students are covering the important material without retreading terrain that’s too familiar. It also clues them in to other opportunities within each of these slots. A slot on the absurd and surreal might include Beckett and Ionesco, but it might also include Kennedy and Churchill. I’ll also give the students an opportunity to weigh in on our “wild card” play. Do they want to do an adaptation of a play we’ve already ready? Do they want to do an understudied period or genre, like Roman comedies or the work of Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim? Do they want to do a solo show a la Anna Deavere Smith or John Leguizamo? Apart from our reading materials, I also plan to collaborate with students to set up class policies regarding discussions and assignments. Ideally, the more students have a stake in how the class is structured, the more they will learn. These efforts, combined with experiments in grading and some other pedagogical tools I picked up last Fall, should (hopefully) make for an experience that’s at least as educational for me as it is for them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s