To Protest or Not to Protest: Is that the Question? On Hamlet and Athletic Politics

Some of you know that I was recently honored to participate in an American Studies Association round table discussion on athletic resistance and fan pleasure.  Other panelists included Jennifer Doyle, Sarah Jackson, Ben Carrington and Harry Edwards.  Our organizer, Professor David Leonard of Washington State University, asked each of the panelists to prepare a 5 minute response to the  following initial question:   “Today’s sportscape is defined by the constant solicitation, maintenance, and fulfillment of fan pleasure.  It is equally defined by a far reaching platform afforded to athletes.  How do the privileging of fan pleasure and the possibilities of protest play out in today’s sports world?”  I’m including my response below.

I can’t stop thinking about Hamlet. You remember Hamlet: bereaved young prince, heir to an imperiled kingdom, haunted by a ghost from the past who instructs him to do something he’s not sure he should, can, or wants to do. It gets so bad for him that he seriously considers just ending it all. But even that’s too scary for him. Burdened by an acute awareness of his conflicting impulses, he stumbles half-heartedly through a plot that ends badly. “To be or not to be”: that was Hamlet’s question and the best response he could muster was a paralyzing double bind: on the one hand, overthinking stymies action and, on the other, overthinking is inevitable.

Young royalty, political turmoil, ghosts from the past: I can see why we’d evoke Hamlet as a metaphor for athletes today. And yet, I resist. For I’ve often felt annoyed by Hamlet. I doubt I’m alone. I’ve been annoyed by his self-doubt, by the limited terms he chooses to frame his dilemma, by the subtle self-delusion through which he transforms that chosen perspective into objective conditions that then justify his paralysis, and I’m annoyed by his conclusion that thought itself is the problem (rather than, say, the particular form his thinking takes). But I know that in part Hamlet annoys because I recognize in him an uncomfortable reflection of myself: distilling the complexity of suffering down to impossible dichotomies, too smart by half for my own good, not as brave as I should be, and too quick to look to others to solve the problems from which I suffer. I don’t like it. But there it is.

To protest or not to protest? Is that the question?

What do we even mean by protest? Protest what? Protest where? Protest by what means?

Are we so sure we know what should be protested, by whom, where, and by what means? Sometimes, yeah, I feel sure. But many times the complexity of suffering in the world bewilders me and I’m not so certain.

If protest here stands for something like acting politically, must protest be the only or privileged form of that action? EP Thompson, in Witness Against the Beast, his masterful analysis of the politics of William Blake, concluded the first half of the book by noting that so far he’d shown only what Blake was against, but that to really understand him as a poet, a political figure and—most importantly—a human being, we still had to discover what he stood for. Can we at least try to keep in mind that all protest worth making must simultaneously affirm something or someone?

And what if that something affirmed were to be, in fact, pleasure? After all, we protest unjust suffering. Can we not affirm just pleasures? Must resistant protest and affirmed pleasure necessarily be construed as mutually exclusive?

Now, I’m uncomfortably aware of my role in the drama portrayed so well in David’s panel description. For I am among those fans whose pleasure we imagine constrains the capacity of athletes to protest. And yet, I’ve not once felt my pleasure as a fan to be diminished by the protests (let alone the political affirmations) of athletes. On the contrary. So that makes me wonder if there isn’t something to be rescued from that and perhaps plugged into the equations we come up with for trying to understand why athletes protest or do not protest.

Finally, I’m here in this room in this nice hotel thinking and talking about why someone else is or isn’t acting. But maybe we should consider that athletes—and even, heaven forbid, some otherwise merely hedonistic fans—may also be thinking and talking about the possibilities for political action. Moreover, if we consider our professional activity here today a form of political action, why don’t we consider the professional activities of athletes, in the arena—in their arena, equally a form of political action? If our words in this arena can be political, why can’t a LeBron James tomahawk jam, or a Britney Griner rejection, be political? Is it that we haven’t learned yet to see and persuasively articulate the politics and the pleasure already at work there?

I don’t mean, like Hamlet, to paralyze the outwardly directed, historically grounded investigation that we will undertake here today. But I do mean to slow the pace: to draw attention to and hopefully disarm the painfully sharp dichotomies that divide us from our power to act, even as they empower us to judge the actions of others.

So, concretely, as we attend to specific questions and cases, I hope we take the opportunity to observe and reflect upon how the following dichotomies work in practice:

politics vs. pleasure

resistance vs. affirmation

athlete vs. fan

what happens inside the arena vs. what happens outside

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