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Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back

Sports writers Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson discuss their brand new book, Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back which is out now!

It was listening to one of my favourite podcasts, Burn It All Down, earlier this year when I heard one of the co-hosts mention the title of the forthcoming book she was co-authoring, ‘Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back’. I was so excited, it was exactly the kind of book I had been waiting for. My anticipation only grew in the middle of the year when one of the Burn It All Down episodes featured a roundtable of the all the hosts discussing their other projects and I listened to Jessica Luther describe the book she was writing with Kavitha A. Davidson.

Upon reflection, I began to think that perhaps this was a strange reaction, to be so excited for a book by that title. The title seems kind of brutal, desperate—why was I counting down to the release of this book? 

Aside from the fact that I would read anything written by Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson, two sports writers I admire greatly, there was something else. That brutal and desperate sentiment expressed in this book’s brilliant title connected with me. It is something I feel so often in my experience as a sports fan. I just felt like this book was going to see me and that is why I was so excited to read it. And while the content matter and issues raised in it can be deeply disappointing, it by no means disappointed in its delivery of a powerful, insightful and nuanced narrative that allowed me to sit with my sports fandom feelings and know that I’m not alone.

I was curious when I spoke to Jessica and Kavitha, if they had a moment. A defining moment that maybe brought them both to writing a book like this.

“Just one?” Kavitha exclaims.

I laugh. Of course there is not one moment. For those of us who make up marginalised groups and come into spaces that were not designed and built with us in mind, there are many moments that signal to us that we’re not welcome, that we’re different, and not ‘doing’ it right.

“I think it’s worse when people find out what I do for a living,” Kavitha explains. “I think when I was just the girl at the bar who loved the Yankees, it was fine. And then they [people at the bar] start talking to you, and then they’re like, ‘oh, there’s a statistic in there’ or ‘there’s a fact that she just pulled out, she actually knows what she’s doing’. And now when people say ‘oh, you really know your stuff!’ I’m inclined to say, ‘Yes, I’m a sports writer, I should know my stuff!’” 

“But it’s that, it’s that happening constantly. That it’s super surprising for you to be extremely into sports or to know what you’re talking about. And then it’s all of the other stuff that comes with that. So when we talk about some of the problematic characters in sports, for example, in the domestic violence chapter, you know, if I’m watching a game, and everyone else is super excited to see someone come in and I’m like, ‘but, remember what he did? You know, like, I’m excited that we’re about to win this game, but…’ and it’s hard because you’re at a bar and you don’t want to be like, ‘Hey, you know, violence!’ So I think that more than any one particular shocking thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s just the constant feeling that you think about this game differently. And you think about these athletes differently. And you’re experiencing this differently than probably eight of the ten people around you.”

Jessica continues on the train of thought

“I absolutely try not to tell, especially men that I meet, what I do. Like I try really hard not to mention sports to strange men that I’m being introduced to. They’ll say, ‘what do you do?’ and I’ll just say, ‘I’m a writer’, then I’m like, please stop talking to me if I can help it because I just don’t like that. Part of it is that I write on gendered violence, and I don’t want to talk about that with a man that I don’t know, but also, I don’t want to talk sports because you never know where that’s going to go. 

“But I do have a very specific story that’s a good example of sort of just how this all just sucks a lot of the time, and I’m still friends with these people so I don’t know if they’ll ever read this! And I don’t know if they’ll remember that it’s them—that’s part of it too, right? Like, it’s a big deal for me, but I don’t know if it was for them. 

“I had very close friends, they’re men. And we’re all friends because our kids were the same age, and they were doing a fantasy football league and they asked my husband to join. He was like, ‘I literally can’t name a team, I’m not going to do this with you, but you should ask my wife’. And they just wouldn’t. They were like, ‘Huh, like, I just don’t know, like people couldn’t make jokes and stuff’, I was too feminist to be a part of their football league. 

“And I can just remember being sad about it, like I was mad, but also just like, ‘oh, okay, I guess you can’t tell rape jokes if I’m there’. I don’t really want to be there if that’s actually what’s happening but it was also this idea, that these are people I am still to this day friends with and like very much, but where the sports boundaries were drawn and it was very clear for me and I was on the outside of it even though I was the ‘expert’. 

“I’ve had the same sort of thing when we were trying to pick where to watch the [Women’s] World Cup, and we went where this guy wanted to go. And it was terrible and it ended up being a shitty venue. And we had to abort and go to where I thought we should go. And I was so mad in the car because we were going to miss the beginning of the game. And I said to my husband, ‘I was like the only person who’s ever been on ESPN, that should be the person who gets to pick where to watch the game!’ Though you get these [moments], it’s so constant, even in like my regular everyday life, not being recognised in a group as an expert on this topic, or being punished for it. That’s part of what is exhausting.”

It’s amazing hearing Jessica and Kavitha express these moments that pull them out of the enjoyment and passion they have for the sports they love. They’re things I feel all the time, but it seems more real and validating looking to these women who I would undoubtedly call experts. How can they be experiencing these moments too at their level? 

These moments they chose to share with me are seemingly so small, so every day, frustrating interactions with friends or random men at bars. But these moments are not small, they’re significant and are just the beginning of what so many sports fans have to navigate to try to find a place to continue to be a fan. And like Jessica says, it’s exhausting. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the book yet! 

Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan is a book that tackles the most pressing issues in sports, why they matter, and how we can do better. For Jessica and Kavitha, ‘sticking to sports’ is not an option. But we all know that simply quitting your favourite team or sport when they reflect ideals that don’t align with your moral code is also not an option for most fans—so what do we do to navigate these issues? 

The book investigates the many different things that can impact a fan’s connection to the sport, team or athlete they love and includes chapters such: Watching Football When We Know (Even a Little) about Brain Trauma, Coping When the Sports You Love Are Anti-LGBTQ+, Rooting for Your Team When the Star Is Accused of Domestic Violence, Forgiving the Doper You Love, Cheering for a Team with a Racist Mascot, Consuming Sports Media . . . Even if You Don’t Look Like the People on TV, just to name a few. 

Jessica and Kavitha interviewed fans, academics and experts, journalists and media presenters to give history and context to each issue and open the discussion to help fans develop a critical lens to begin to work through some of these really complicated problems and I’m so excited we can talk to them both today about what they found in putting this book together.

Originally, the book was intended to be a ‘how to’, something that could give fans all the answers so they could continue to love sports. But the complications of sports fandom and the variety of ways so many different people come to sports fandom make it impossible to provide those kinds of answers. And in a way, that’s a good thing. There should be a multitude of ways fans can experience sport, it’s the singular lens that limits diverse participation and ultimately excludes fans.

“As we were gathering all the chapters and reading through them as a group, it became clear that some chapters don’t have an ‘answer’, like there isn’t an ‘answer’. And so we realised that that formulation wasn’t going to serve the audience. Framing it as a ‘how to guide’ was just not going to pay the dividends because it’s too complicated. It’s too big a topic to really usher in a lot of people through with a ‘how to guide’, I think that would be really presumptuous. Kavitha and I have different fandoms, I would guess you probably have a different fandom. We all make different choices all the time.” Jessica explains. Kavitha adds:

“There wouldn’t be able to be just one, that’s the thing that comes across. Like Jessica said, we have different fandoms and we probably have much more similar fandoms than we do to the average sports fan. There’s just not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing and even in the chapters where there are recommendations of how to navigate different issues, the fans that we interview, no two fans answer the same, that’s one of the difficult parts of this whole thing.”

But what can be achieved is to learn how to think through the issues and find ways to allow yourself to sit with the complications, understand the dualities and find ways to bring them into an open forum so it’s not out-of-sight-out-of-mind or ‘ignorance is bliss’, it’s taking everything and learning how to challenge and celebrate at the same time.

“How to be a critical fan, and still be a fan,” Jessica describes it. “I think, I don’t want to speak for Kavitha, but I think that’s literally my whole life is like how to be a critical fan and still be a fan.”

Kavitha adds, “that was the whole purpose of writing the book, is that, you know, we want to still be able to watch these games, but [addressing these issues is] just not something that Jessica I can turn off and all the fans that we interviewed and all the fans are out there feel that in some varied capacity.”

The fan representation in Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back is so refreshing. I came to this book wanting to be seen, to know that others feel what I feel and understand how these small moments chip away at my fan identity sometimes. But my experiences are from a very different position than so many, and while I felt seen in this text, I was able to see more of the experiences of other fans. Fans different to me and who are navigating different issues, but all for the same purpose, to find a space at the game that allows us to be the fans we want to be. Loving sports while also holding them to account. 

I could talk to Jessica and Kavitha for hours, and I was thrilled that I was able to connect with them twice recently for this interview and as well for an event hosted by my research team at Swinburne University of Technology, the Sport Innovation Research Group, both discussions were too short. But I have this book now, this reference that I can connect with when I feel conflicted and misunderstood and like I’m not a ‘real’ fan.

“I just hope people feel seen,” Jessica says when I ask what she hopes people take away from this book and I want to hug her through the screen because it’s exactly what she and Kavitha have given me.

“For people who don’t feel loved by sports, maybe it makes them feel a little bit more loved within sports, that there’s actually a bunch of us out here doing this work and feeling this way. And we’re still here. But also, it’d be great if maybe the people who do already feel loved within sport realise that there are a lot of things that we can all still, and should be critical of, in order to make this a more inclusive and welcoming space.” 

And reading this book is a good place to start.

Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back is out now via the University of Texas Press

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