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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Sports |
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Sport

The other week the greatest basketball player of his generation, LeBron James, called the President of the United States a “bum” on social media. Then, arguably the next greatest NBA player of his generation, Kevin Durant, accidentally exposed himself as running multiple social media accounts in which he bad mouthed his former team and defended himself against what is popularly known as “the haters.”

These two “incidents” sit at the crossroads of contemporary sports discourse and consumption and are examples of how athletes are (re)gaining both a political voice and, perhaps just as importantly, reconstituting their very identity against the institutions and general conversation that reduces them to quantifiable data on a spreadsheet.

With the advent of social media, athletes have been given a platform to connect with “fans” that is largely outside the meddling of league or team PR people, and not at the mercy of the whims of journalists. As the LeBron example shows, this access has often lead to athletes taking on an overt political voice. Meanwhile the example of Kevin Durant, though not his intention, has exposed a deeply human and therefore relatable flaw in an athlete who in physicality and performance appears to defy “human-ness.”

These cases become more significant when juxtaposed to the increasingly data-driven institutions of sport that seek to eliminate as much human error as possible when constructing a team or analysing a performance. Athletes are measured for their height, weight, wingspan, as well as their sprint time, jumping ability, and how fast they can run around cones, among a myriad of other tests, and this happens even before they reach the field of competition. Simple counting stats (goals scored, points created, etc.) is being usurped in favour of densely complicated statistics that combine various sources of data to produce a single stat that apparently offers a more accurate analysis of an athlete’s impact.

The drive to quantify will not cease; in the very near future wearable technology will provide the most “accurate” measure of an athlete’s effect on the game, as every movement will be tracked and mapped on some Ivy League graduate’s laptop. This data-driven analysis has seeped into our very consumption of sport, rather than existing solely for the analytics departments of individual teams; more and more casual fans are becoming versed, through avenues like fantasy sports, in the virtues of these apparently “objective” numbers. So, while athletes are finding their voice through the less mediated platforms of social media, the conversation surrounding and about them is increasingly reducing their value and humanity to their mere quantifiables.

We can begin to see the importance, for athletes, of having platforms that allow them to break out of restrictive data analysis and assert their unique humanity. In the current political climate, this ability takes on even more significance, as more and more athletes are finding a political voice, based as all politics is, around their identity. Though they might be only inadvertently linked, the drive to quantify athletic performance is still inextricable from a desire to reduce an athlete to only their athletic performance, erasing any potential identity outside of that performance.

The issues outlined here are not unique to athletes; individuals everywhere are in a struggle to realise their identity against systems seeking daily to reduce them to merely their output. The field of sports simply allows this to play out for public consumption. The role of the “good fan” in all of this is to recognise their own complicity, and combat dehumanising forces through recognising and appreciating athletes’ autonomy and identity, even when it is asserted at odds with their own.

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