The shutdown of sports across the globe may be a good opportunity for a “reset” when the world restarts after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to several international sports experts.
The Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University had been scheduled to hold its annual summit on Friday, but instead hosted a Zoom panel discussion that covered several questions about the place of sports in society. The experts, and the attendees who tuned in, were from around the world.
Among the points were:
Sports have had a central place in the effects of the shutdown.
Andres Martinez, ASU professor of practice and journalist: “In Latin America, the awareness that COVID-19 was coming and would be a huge societal and existential threat came later than in other parts of the world. But because soccer is globalized, there’s an interesting dynamic where the professional sports leagues were more attuned to the threat than the political institutions were. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused Brazilian soccer of being hysterical when it shut down.
“An unintended consequence is that professional athletes and teams and leagues have become the most important communicators and educators in countries like Mexico and Brazil, where public authority has been slow to act.”
Natalie Welch, assistant professor for sports business and marketing at Linfield College, and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians: “Sports is a community gathering place. The North American Indigenous Games were postponed, and that was 5,000 Indian youths who came together and that’s a big impact.
“As a professor at a Division III school, I saw so many student-athletes have their season stolen from them at the last second. They’re heartbroken.”
Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy, and Research: “College football and basketball subsidizes a broad range of sports on campus, and if those revenue streams are lost, it’s not only a problem for college football and basketball, it’s also a problem because Penn State tennis and Arizona State ice hockey doesn’t exist without the subsidies they get from the commercialized sports.”
Rebroadcasting old games has had mixed results.
Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School in France: “Now we’re in the business of nostalgia because there’s no other content to show. And that nostalgia is important because people are thinking about a different time when we weren’t living with the current pressures.”
Tracey Holmes, Australian journalist and presenter on ABC News Radio: “They’re pulling games out of the vault, but they’re not just replaying the commentary. They have modern-day commentators sitting in the studio and calling the match. It’s funny because they forget they know the result. Afterward they have these in-depth conversations because they noticed a lot of things that were not noticed when they called the match 10 or 20 years ago.”
Welch: “ESPN showed a Rose Bowl from 2008, and that was popular on Twitter. But why couldn’t we show Australian football or women’s sports? This is a good time to question not only the competition and playing side but also our consumption of sports and how the media projects certain things.”
The webinar polled attendees on whether sports should be considered “essential” during a crisis, and 60 percent said “no.”
Ilhaam Groenewald, chief director of Maties Sports at Stellenbosch University, South Africa: “For some people, sport is not that important. Being able to have a meal a day is very important. I’m pleased by the outcome to the question because it shows that as sports people, we are not living in our own bubble.”
Martinez: “You can think about FDR’s letter to the commissioner of baseball after Pearl Harbor, the so-called ‘Green Light Letter,’ telling him that baseball is not only appropriate, it’s essential. What’s different now is it’s not just about the appropriateness given the gravity of the challenge at hand, it’s about the protection of the athletes themselves. I push back on people who say, ‘Sports is frivolous.’ Saying it’s ‘essential’ is daunting, but I’m a little bit in that camp.”
James Skinner, director for sports business at Loughborough University, London: “What’s resonating is a quote by a famous Italian football coach who said, ‘Football is the most important thing of the least important things in life.’
“In the darkest of times, sport does act as a vehicle to bring us together, but in these times where sports can be a catalyst to increase risk and lead to the spread of disease, there is a recognition that it does need to stop and we’ll have a celebration when it’s over and recognize how important it is.”
In the second poll, 77% of respondents said “yes” to, “Is this a moment to reset sports?”
Chadwick: “People are talking about this as a reset moment, borne of frustration with what’s happening. With the Cheltenham horse racing festival, public health officials were saying, ‘This should really not go ahead.’ But nobody took action to keep it from going ahead. There was too much money involved. People are saying, ‘Enough.’ There’s a general concern that money is dominating everything.
“The question is, ‘Reset to what?’ Ten years ago. 20 years ago? Who’s going to do that?”
Martinez: “We should be cautious about a reset. We’ve had in the last few years the beginning of a viable women’s football league in Mexico, Peru and Argentina, and it’s the result of prosperity and an influx of money and where clubs were told by FIFA and societal pressure that they have to support a women’s team. When I think of the reset when there’s a financial crisis, I think the first that will go are a lot of these teams.”
Ross: “Outside of northern rich sports, there is a strong link between grassroots and commercial sports where the commercialized aspects pay for socially progressive grassroots sports, and specifically the opportunity to help young people participate. That is missing in the United States and Great Britain. If Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente were 15 years old today, they would never play baseball because their parents couldn’t afford the travel teams.
“One place there might be an opportunity for a reset is to think, ‘What are the obligations of commercialized leagues?’”
Skinner: “I don’t think the commercial drive for sport will stop. We might reflect and think about the values we place around sport. We should consider the positive things that commercialization brings to the table. It’s how we manage those moving forward.
“Since the 1972 Olympics in Munich, we thought the biggest threat to sport is terrorism, but now we see it might be disease. Slowly we will get back to normal, but I think we’re in for a bit of a long haul.”
Groenewald: “The late Nelson Mandela said that sport has the power to change the world. He inspired millions of people around the world with his leadership. We should remind ourselves, ‘What else can we do besides the things we’re used to?’ If sport doesn’t contribute to a healthier nation, we have to press the reset button.”
Welch: “I want to stress the importance of creating a new normal. I’ve seen the trend of some indigenous values, such as sustainability, come to the forefront. I challenge all of us to think of other ways to engage our community with these values. We believe the creator does things for a reason, and this is a way for us to reevaluate the way we’re doing things.”