Sport prevails. The coronavirus is far from conquered, but the games must go on. And what a surreal holiday weekend of sport we’ve had. Yes, the US Open from Flushing Meadows over Labor Day is one of those calendar fixtures that help mark summer’s twilight (though, really, don’t whack the ball at the line judge!). But on this Labor Day weekend, we also had the Tour de France, the NBA playoffs, the NHL playoffs, the Kentucky Derby, and possibly some golf tournament or other. It was the sports world’s equivalent of making up for lost time by celebrating Easter, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving on the same weekend.
Sport prevails, as does society. We recalibrate our risk tolerance, and resolve to manage and contain viral risks for those things we collectively deem important and desirable. And we accept that the risk cannot be eradicated altogether.
Of course, some critics snicker at the perceived hubris and privilege of rich sports leagues. How dare we prioritize the testing of NBA players? How dare the NFL plan on kicking off its season this week as if nothing has happened in the world since the Super Bowl?
Assessing the importance of sport (and whether we want to include golf in the discussion) is admittedly a subjective exercise, but I am glad to report that the cynics have been on a losing streak of late. Sport came back into our lives safely, despite cynics’ protestations that they couldn’t or shouldn’t. Starting with the German Bundesliga in May, the major European football leagues came back to finish their suspended seasons successfully, giving us all a model of how to get on with life during a pandemic, exercising extreme, meticulously planned, care (no fans in stadiums, etc). In several countries, games that were to be shown on pay TV were shifted to free broadcast TV.
Then came the exhilarating, month-long compressed European championships as sport on this continent was awakening from its slumber.
It’s hard to quantify, sure, but the return of sport to our screens – literally giving us something to cheer for – has done wonders for morale around the world, as people yearn for signs that we will prevail over the virus and return to a time of “normalcy.” Sport has also provided the most powerful public health signaling in many countries, with athletes and teams exhorting fans to wear masks and take care; and the games played before empty stadiums themselves serving as the ultimate tribute to the seriousness of the ongoing pandemic. In addition, as the representation of what can be best in us, sport has provided the most constructive avenue for expressing another collective yearning – for social justice, and progress. At a time when politics everywhere seem broken, admired athletes like Marcus Rashford, Naomi Osaka, and LeBron James have stepped up to act like statesmen, and our sports arenas (even with fans absent) have been the most effective public arenas for expressing our demands for a more just society.
Critics who say all these sports have restarted prematurely solely because of all the money that is at stake have it backwards. The resources of these leagues and athletes are not cause but effect. In our increasingly atomized, divided societies, sports are one of the few remaining things that bring us together en masse. The resources are there because we value sport, not the other way around.
The brilliant Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi is famously credited with saying that “football is the most important of the least important things in life,” and millions of people around the world who’ve been heartened by the perseverance of their game in this difficult time would agree with him.
One of the most vital global missions of sport in our time is to open spaces for women’s empowerment, fulfillment, and representation. The status of women’s sport around the world varies, depending on the status of women in society, but everywhere it is a catalyst for the broader positive change that is needed. And everywhere we have seen positive momentum, as the wildly successful Women’s World Cup made clear last year.
In identifying its biggest trends for sport going into 2020, the Deloitte consultancy identified the “rise of women’s sport” as the #1 global trend, though the advent of the pandemic, and sport’s ensuing retrenchment, appeared to threaten this rise.
But the rise of women’s sport is also prevailing, thankfully, over the pandemic. The impressive smorgasbord of sports on TV in the US this weekend included Manchester United vs Chelsea on NBC Sports (their women’s teams, mind you, kicking off the FA Women’s Super League); and, in what feels like a momentous cultural milestone, the NWSL’s Sky Blue FC vs Washington Spirit on CBS. In Mexico, too, the women’s season also returned on TV, with teams, as in England, linked to the men’s clubs, extending their brands.
For the fledgling US league, 2020 looks to be a defining year, having come out of what could have been a fatal pandemic lockdown with a bucket full of strong corporate sponsorships (Google, Nike, Verizon, Twitch, Budweiser, among others), a new CBS TV deal, and an influx of more investors looking to snatch up franchises in what could be the world’s fastest-growing sport. And mirroring the globalization of the men’s game, we’re starting to see a great deal of talent migration across leagues and cross-border competition between domestic leagues and their clubs (on Tuesday, Sept 8, we’re hosting an engaging free-of-charge online event with remarkable women players from Rayadas Monterrey, Manchester City, and Sky Blue FC discussing these trends).
Overall, the return of sport has entertained us, and renewed our hope in a full recovery, and our faith in the resilience of the human spirit. So much so that I might quibble with Sacchi’s formulation. Maybe sport isn’t the most important of the least important things in life, but rather the least important of the most important ones.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz