Prior to and throughout the recent Tokyo Olympics, we heard story after story about the sacrifice, determination, perseverance, and relentless pursuit of mastery and excellence characterizing various selected athletes. This is to be expected—networks strive to generate deep interest and, principally, maximize revenues through meticulously crafted, compelling narratives. Getting viewers to care will get viewers to watch, and keep watching.
We are operating within a neoliberal capitalistic context, where people are regarded as consumers first and foremost. As David Schwartz writes:
In today’s economy humans are nothing if not consumers. Consuming has become a primary function of human beings, essential for our survival, entertainment, and general flourishing. For some, consumerism is a major component of their very identities. Furthermore, many academic and policy studies routinely assume that the primary social function of humans is that of (“rational”) consumer, and many legislators, economists, and policy makers seem to conceive of the public as consumers even more than citizens.1
Eddie Glaude, Jr. (2014) observes, “Neoliberalism narrowed the idea of citizen…. A robust idea of citizenship gave way to a crude notion that Americans are simply individual entrepreneurs and consumers.”2
Consequently, these stories, and the athletes themselves, became carefully packaged commodities served to us for our consumption. Medals, motherhood, mental health—they all became corporate-sponsored commercial artifacts on grand display for our insatiable thirst for riveting entertainment.
This unholy transformation of the athlete from subject to object continues unabated—indeed, it’s perhaps intensified given its potential as an engaging storyline—when a supreme global talent like Simone Biles courageously resists the corporate camera and the viewers’ gaze, refusing to die, quite literally given that she was experiencing the “twisties,” so that our viewing pleasure might live. With the performance out, the refusal itself became the new story.
Though the market-driven transformation from athlete to commodity remains undefeated, Simone Biles’ withdrawal became a subversive act, serving to shift our attention, even if but for a moment, back to where it belonged all along—her humanity.
Biles is not alone.
Shortly after winning the 100m sprint at the US Olympic Trials, Sha’Carri Richardson reminded fans of her humanity, tweeting “I am human” as news broke of her suspension from the Tokyo Olympics for using marijuana in response to finding out from a reporter during a live television interview that her biological mother recently died.
Naomi Osaka was embroiled in controversy for announcing her intention to not participate in press conferences at the 2021 French Open in an effort to preserve her mental health. Eventually withdrawing altogether, she explained in an essay in Time:
I communicated that I wanted to skip press conferences at Roland Garros to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health. I stand by that. Athletes are humans.
In response to an NBA fan dumping popcorn on an injured Russell Westbrook, another fan spitting at Trae Young, and a Boston fan throwing a water bottle at teammate Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant had this to say in an interview:
I know that being in the house for a year-and-a-half with the pandemic got a lot of people on edge, got a lot of people stressed out. But when you come into these games, you’ve got to realize these men are human. We’re not animals; we’re not in a circus.
Durant himself has experienced abuse from fans. After rupturing his Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors, some Toronto fans loudly celebrated, cheering as he sat injured on the court. In his essay “Kevin Durant and the dehumanization of black athletes,” Martenzie Johnson notes that Durant’s teammate Demarcus Cousins was disturbed, “explaining to reporters that players, like Durant, are ‘only idolized as superstar athletes. Not human beings.’” Johnson adds that another one of Durant’s teammates, Andre Iguodala, observed, “The more revenue, the further you get away from the human aspect. It’s just a part of it. And that’s a different aspect that’s becoming more and more in sports.” Johnson argues that, given the United States’ long history of white supremacy and racist characterizations of African Americans, Black athletes in particular are dehumanized. He writes:
To audiences, black players are nothing more than the real-life versions of the characters on video games such as NBA2K and Madden NFL, incapable of actual feelings or pain….
Regarding the Toronto fans who celebrated Durant’s grave injury, Johnson adds: “They only saw a mindless video game avatar simply malfunctioning.”
Writing about the profitability of the NFL, Eric Allen Hall claims that there is a “central tension between athletes and the billion-dollar industry that profits from them. As football has become more profitable, its players have become more of a commodity.”The point generalizes well beyond the NFL and professional sports. According to Travis Dorsch, Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Families in Sport Lab in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Utah State University, this economic conceptualization of the athlete has migrated all the way to youth sports, a multi-billion dollar industry. He argues that “our youth sports context…increasingly commodifies our nation’s children and adolescents.”
Commodification is not the only route toward dehumanization. It is well-documented that athletes, particularly female athletes, have long been subject to sexual objectification. According to Mary Jo Kane, who is now Professor Emerita in the School of Kinesiology, and the Director Emerita of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, “There is overwhelming evidence of differential patterns of media coverage given to female and male athletes.”3 She states that sports sociologists base this, in part, on the following observation:
[M]ales are consistently presented in ways that emphasize their athletic strength and competence, whereas females are presented in ways that highlight their physical attractiveness and femininity. For example, when female athletes do receive coverage, they are continually portrayed in ways that link them to oppressive stereotypes of women’s so-called frailty, sexuality, and limited physical capacity. In this latter regard, female athletes are significantly more likely than male athletes to be portrayed off the court, out of uniform, and in highly passive and sexualized poses.4
A groundbreaking investigation done by Margaret Duncan in 1990 examined sport photographs of female athletes participating in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games. The photographs were generated from a comprehensive sample of popular illustrated magazines with large circulations throughout North America. These magazines included Time, Newsweek, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Macleans. Duncan found that much of the ideological content of these photographs emphasized the sexual difference of the female athlete. More specifically, she discovered that these elite female athletes were portrayed in ways that emphasized their physical appearance. They also were photographed in poses that displayed them as sexual objects for male pleasure.5
Tragically, this objectifying phenomenon is not a relic of the past. For example, Cynthia Frisby, Professor of Strategic Communications in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Oklahoma, published the results of an analysis of “109 photographs of female athletes found on the cover of two magazines popular among sports fans: Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.”6 Frisby concluded:
Perhaps the most important finding of the present study was the pervasiveness of sexualization and objectification of female athletes found on the covers of popular sports magazines. The majority of sport covers in the present sample contained two indicators of sexualization and objectification; provocative poses and scantily clad outfits.7
Recently, female athletes, such as the Norwegian women’s beach handball team and the German women’s gymnastics team, have made headlines for rejecting the sexist uniform standards that contribute to such sexualization and objectification.
Kantians who spot this dehumanization in sports will immediately recognize it as morally problematic. Famously, one of Kant’s formulations of the categorical imperative is what has been called the Formula of Humanity, “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, and never merely as a means.”
While there are longstanding disputes over how best to understand this formula, in particular how to understand what it means to treat a person as a mere means, it seems clear enough that commodifying or sexually objectifying an athlete counts as such. Regarding and treating the athlete as fundamentally an object of market value, a thing designed for viewer consumption, as fundamentally a unit constructed for team use and victory, as fundamentally an object designed for sexual consumption and gratification, seem to be clear examples of shaving the humanity, and with it, the agency and autonomy, off an athlete. Consequently, for the Kantian, regarding and treating athletes in such ways is morally wrong, a violation of the moral duty of respect, which Robin S. Dillion describes as “the duty to not degrade others to the status of mere means to my ends.”8
Christians especially have good reason to resist strongly this dehumanization of the athlete, whether the target is professional athletes or youth athletes, whether the route to dehumanization is commodification or sexual objectification or some other route that strips the athlete of their subjectivity. In short, it is a failure to love our neighbor, the athlete. It is a failure to live as the Good Samaritan, that scandalous exemplar of love upheld by Jesus as the one his followers are to imitate. In his reflections on the Good Samaritan, Martin Luther King, Jr. praised the Samaritan for rejecting the “limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class, or nation.”9 King remarked:
The real tragedy of such narrow provincialism is that we see people as entities or merely as things. Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or Americans, Negroes or whites. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image. The priest and the Levite saw only a bleeding body, not a human being like themselves. But the good Samaritan will always remind us to remove the cataracts of provincialism from our spiritual eyes and see men as men.10
The Kantian themes are evident here, but King’s focus is on how this failure to see the humanity in another is ultimately a failure to love. It’s a failure to abide by the central ethical thread running through Scripture, the moral imperative to love indiscriminately. Repurposing portions of King’s reflection above yields the following application:
The real tragedy of such narrow provincialism is that we see athletes as entities or merely as things. Too seldom do we see athletes in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see athletes as commodities, investments, resources, capital, competitive tools, sexual objects. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image. The viewer, the spectator, the producer, the executive, the general manager saw only an object with market value, a competitive tool, an object for entertainment or sexual consumption, not a human being like themselves. But the good Samaritan will always remind us to remove the cataracts of provincialism from our spiritual eyes and see athletes as humans.11
Christians who, like Howard Thurman, see that “the religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central,” should be motivated to protest the dehumanization of the athlete and prophetically challenge the systems and structures that propagate and profit off of this phenomenon.12
- David Schwartz, Consuming Choices: Ethics in a Global Consumer Age (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 83.
- Eddie Glaude, Jr., African American Religion: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 87.
- Mary Jo Kane, “Media Coverage of the Post Title IX Female Athlete: A Feminist Analysis of Sport, Gender, and Power,” Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy 3, no. 95 (1996), 102.
- Kane, “Media Coverage of the Post Title IX Female Athlete,” 102.
- Kane, “Media Coverage of the Post Title IX Female Athlete,” 109.
- Cynthia Frisby, “Sexualization and Objectification of Female Athletes on Sports Magazine Covers: Improvement, Consistency, or Decline? International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 7, no. 6 (2017): 21.
- Frisby, “Sexualization and Objectification of Female Athletes on Sports Magazine Covers,” 28.
- Robin S. Dillon, “Respect,” In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/respect/>.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 23.
- King, Strength to Love, 24.
- King, Strength to Love.
- Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 89.