As can be expected in a global pandemic that has infected at least two million people and sadly claimed the lives of more than 100,000, the return of the sporting calendar is not at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Sport simply cannot and should not return, if doing so endangers lives and goes against the brilliant, brave work of the NHS staff and volunteers in fighting against COVID-19.
However, for many sport is an escape, which allows them to focus on something positive, and could act as a reminder to people that there are still beacons of light at the end of this very dark tunnel that society seemingly finds itself stuck in right now.
Sky Sports pundit and ex-professional footballer Paul Merson is just one of these individuals, opening up on how the absence of live sport has shattered his daily routine. For many fans, I am sure the same is also true. Many ex-players and current players have gone on record about how susceptible their sudden wealth makes them to gambling and drinking issues. These temptations will no doubt be ever-present through such troubled times.
Therefore, whilst I accept that the return of sport must be managed carefully, I do believe that it is important that it does return with a degree of speed, in order to protect the mental health of such vulnerable individuals.
However, once it has been determined when sport can return, how exactly it does so is very much up for debate. Big sporting events attract thousands of fans, not only in the stadiums themselves, but in pubs and bars for hours before, during and after the events. As a result, a full return of sport to normality during such a health crisis is hardly imminent, nor should it be. Conserving life must come first.
Consequently, the suggestion has been proffered that sport should return without fans. But is it this simple? I would say not. For example, the Bundesliga have estimated that around 240 people – consisting of players, team staff, officials and broadcasters – would be needed for a game to be played, even behind closed doors.
This is a world where meetings within two metres of just two individuals that do not live within the same household are prohibited unless they are absolutely essential. Such gatherings are still unrealistic at this stage.
Controversially though, WWE is now considered an ‘essential service’ in the State of Florida and the UFC proceeded with events planned long past most other organisations. These decisions are frankly irresponsible and hard to reconcile with, for contact sports cannot currently be played by the public – why should we expect professional athletes to then take this risk to their health purely for our entertainment? It is unreasonable, unfair and immoral.
A greater argument could certainly be made for socially distanced sports, such as golf and fishing; I am sure these will be amongst the first to return.
Debates surrounding the fairness of completing seasons in shortened or altered formats without fans put aside, most fans will agree that a world with sport is significantly better than one without. Gary Neville’s proposed ‘festival of football’ would certainly be a spectacle to behold.
From this though, the point to take away is not the importance of the immediacy of a return, but rather the necessity for a structured and managed return in gradual stages. Only by carefully going through such a process, both at professional and university level, can we ensure that when sports do return, they return for good.