In a time of global crisis, Craig Smith writes how insignificant the often faux-important world of sport seems on reflection.
Sport undoubtedly pales into insignificance when considering the horrors that the world is currently facing. Liverpool raising the Premier League title is insignificant when faced with mounting deaths across the globe due to COVID-19. Roger Federer having a chance to lift the men’s singles trophy for a record ninth time at Wimbledon is irrelevant when families are forcibly separated to protect the vulnerable. A potential monumental Heavyweight clash between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua can be put to the back of our mind in these disconcerting times. Fury accumulating more belts is far from anyone’s thoughts at the moment but his story encapsulates the power of sport, both individually and collectively, that is part of sport’s magnificence. He has come from the depths of mental illness, contemplating suicide, to regain a World Title, the lure of success and adulation outweighing the temptation of destructive partying. The regained focus he found will be familiar to many who have found sport and exercise to be a crucial outlet when facing difficulties in their personal life. The story of Fury also evidences the power of sport to bring people from differing personal situations together, the ‘social cohesion’ which lifts the spirits of the disenfranchised. Fury has used his sporting platform to become an ambassador for mental health, someone who successfully moves forward the conversation surrounding mental health and encourages others suffering to speak out before it is too late. Fury has also managed to alter the perception of the Traveller community within the UK. He is managing to break down barriers, often put up due to the racism which exists in society, through sport in the same way that the likes of Viv Anderson and Cyrille Regis did for the black community back in the 1970s. Sport has the immense power to break down social barriers, to allow for intergenerational bonding when it would not otherwise occur. We typically place great importance on winners and losers in sport, what really matters is what sport brings to all of us whether we win, lose or draw.
Sport has a wonderful ability to make us feel good about ourselves. We meet people to go to the football with on a Saturday who we wouldn't otherwise be seeing – it’s often what we spend all week looking forward to and the mental health benefit of that should not be underestimated. It offers structure to the week and something to look forward to even if everything else is overwhelming you. Being unable to play the sports we typically do leads to separation from friends. Those bonds, which we deeply appreciate, will now strain and potentially sever. The absence of sport can cut us off from many friends and can be to the detriment of our physical health. It is horrible. People should not be ashamed to say they are missing sport – and yes, there are far bigger things happening in the world just now, but sport offers structure; it offers bonding, it knocks down barriers, and lets us escape from the mundanity and stress of ordinary life. Sporting bodies, like the Premier League and the UFC, have been hammered for trying to engineer ways of keeping the show on the road behind closed doors, but given the constant stream of atrocious news you discover when turning on the TV, the benefits of live sport at this time should not be underappreciated. If it was currently happening, it would have the power to make us forget, or at least set to one side, the many problems in the world for an hour or two, to remember there is light at the end of the tunnel and that things will get better.
It might feel disconcerting to discuss how to restart, or restructure, football, and other sports, given the great strain which the country is under. Some critics will consider arguments about sport’s importance which reference wellbeing to be arguments of indulgent sports fans, but it is necessary to consider how to recommence sport once it is safe to do so. Sports clubs and federations are businesses which need to survive in order to ensure employment for staff and economic benefit for those indirectly benefiting from the football club, such as the pubs surrounding grounds that only ever see a large quantity of punters on a matchday. Sport is a crucial part of the economy; Premier League players paid tax of over a billion pounds during the 2016-17 season which evidences the money brought in by these sports. Any sensible business would be planning in order to ensure they can remain as healthy as possible and sport is no different, football (often unfairly singled out), and other sports, should not be castigated for trying to ensure that they continue to deliver their economic and social benefits.
We have to yearn for sport to return, we have to acknowledge the important contribution of sport to the lives of each individual who has a relationship with sport, be it a member of catering staff at Celtic Park or a fan of Stenhousemuir. Things have to get better before live sport can re-enter our TV screens and sports clubs can once again open their gates but there is no shame in highlighting the importance of supporting and planning its return when the time is right.