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Book Discussion: Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back

Bookshelves in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Christiana, Delaware.

Back in June of last year, I posted a preview of the title Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan by Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson prior to its release in September. It promised to be a timely release as the NBA returned to competition to finish its season delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It received a starred review from Kirkus for its excellent quality of writing. While I agree with Kirkus that the book is “[a]n incisive, damning indictment of the world’s most popular pastimes”, I found the book somewhat disappointing. For me, it did not live up to the premise in the final paragraph of the introduction chapter:

We hope this book starts conversations. We hope it inspires you to reassess how to think about sports. More than anything, we hope it helps you figure out how or even if you can love sports when sports don’t love you back.

The book should be effective at starting conversations because it addresses many of the dilemmas socially-conscious fans face when following sports. However, it did not present information that was new to me beyond the larger context of Donald Sterling‘s tenure as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. The book has not offered me any new ways to assess my relationship to the Chicago Cubs, who have previously employed an alleged domestic abuser and whose owners financially supported the racist insurrectionist Donald Trump. In fact, it concludes with a discussion of athletes’ activism to promote change in sports when the book’s premise is supposed to be fan dilemmas and how fans can reconsider their relationship to sports. While athlete activism can certainly inspire fans to advocate for change, athletes (and sportswriters like the authors) enjoy a bigger platform than the average fan, and their dilemmas relate to their employment in an entertainment business, not as consumers of said entertainment.

The book’s chapter about MLB’s free agent market also fell flat for me. It is one of the shortest of the book and summarizes the major developments in MLB labor history. The discussion of MLB’s revenue sharing framework notes that “[r]evenue sharing has absolutely helped small-market teams field better squads – when they choose to actually spend that money on talent” (emphasis mine). The authors make the point that when small market teams spend, they have been able to win championships but fail to discuss outcomes of small-market spending more recent than the 2015 World Series. The Mookie Betts trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers is mentioned as an example of billionaire penny-pinching, but it is not discussed in context with the slow pace of free agent signings in recent years or service time manipulation. The authors conclude that baseball’s free market has been “good for meritocracy and good for labor.” But is that really true when so many teams are no longer interested in acquiring talent on the free agent market and players are likely to strike after the conclusion of the 2021 season?

One of the book’s stronger sections is found in Chapter 7: Consuming Sports Media…Even If You Don’t Look Like the People on TV. After discussing inequality in sports media, the authors gathered interviews and statements from media members who belong to underrepresented groups to serve as “an oral history of sorts” sharing their “voices, experiences, wishes and advice.” Following and boosting these individuals on social media would be an excellent way for fans to support diversity in sports media.

Overall, I think this book is a good recommendation as a conversation starter that socially-conscious fans can recommend to friends and family who are not as well-versed in the topics discussed. It has a good general summary of issues like doping, athletes accused of domestic abuse, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, exploitation of NCAA athletes and lack of appreciation for the WNBA. However, those who are already aware of these issues would be better served by reading books and articles that discuss specific topics of interest more deeply. For example, Champions Way: Football, Florida and the Lost Soul of College Sports by Mike McIntire is a deep investigation into the corruption of the NCAA system through the lens of the Florida State University football program. The HBO film Women of Troy provides insight into the WNBA’s importance in providing North American women basketball players professional opportunities closer to home.

After finishing Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back, I find myself in the same position with regard to my relationship to the Chicago Cubs as a fan who despises the team’s past practices and current ownership group. I have written posts in the past about some of the topics raised by the book’s authors in relation to my Chicago Cubs fandom, such as when your team employs a domestic abuser and when the owners of your team are reprehensible individuals. I will continue to discuss the dilemmas raised by my fandom here at this site and will share if the book has offered any assistance in addressing these dilemmas in the future.

Featured Image: Bookshelves in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Christiana, Delaware by Mihai_Andritoiu /