Brian O'Connor: Argument for playing on still stands – even if optics are poor

It is fair to ask whether or not elite sport should continue as the pandemic rages

Phil Foden and his Manchester City teammates celebrate his winner against Brighton. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/PA

Phil Foden and his Manchester City teammates celebrate his winner against Brighton. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/PA

 

There’s normally only one winner when morality collides with big business. But these are not normal times and the ethical dilemma of elite sport continuing during the worst of a pandemic is far from some theoretical exercise.

The Newcastle manager Steve Bruce summed up the feelings of many when claiming it to be morally wrong for the Premier League to continue.

His comments were in the context of a large coronavirus outbreak among Newcastle’s squad and staff. Bruce said the impact of the virus on fit, young athletes has been scary. Financially though, he said he couldn’t disagree with the Premiership carrying on.

This is the kind of face-off that usually resolves itself one way, as a world-weary Australian prime minister once memorably summed up in sporting terms many years ago.

“The punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post whereas the nag named Self-Interest always runs a good race,” announced Gough Whitlam back in the day.

Billions of Euro tied up in the Premier League ensure there’s an awful lot of self-interest in keeping the television show on the road. Similar commercial imperatives apply across the board. Rugby’s financial health is bound up in getting some version of a Six Nations run off next month.

Exceptional

In the middle of lockdown elite sport is still being treated as exceptional. The rights and wrongs of that are stamped over debates about how best to balance public health with trying to get events such as the postponed Olympic games in Tokyo in July to go ahead.

The International Olympic Committee is working on ways to get athletes the Covid-19 vaccine beforehand. They want this while insisting they don’t want to ‘queue jump’ the vaccinations process which seems like a balancing act to challenge even the most pliable gymnast.

When much of the world is stricken with a deadly virus, the claim by the longest-standing IOC member, Canada’s Dick Pound, that he doesn’t think there will be any public outcry about diverting vaccines to fit young athletes from all around to world so they can race each other looks optimistic.

When society is fighting this threat, and health systems are creaking under the pressure of trying to save lives, making an exception of a comparative triviality as sport can feel very tone-deaf indeed.

Dire nightly news images followed by sports headlines of players rushing to embrace each other can feel incongruous, even more than a bit tasteless.

That tension was there during last summer when it briefly appeared the worst might be over. Now we know the worst is still to come only the most unimaginative might not reflect at some point if sport at a time of Covid feels like more than an affront to just taste.

Some of the selfish behaviour by certain high-profile footballers in Britain through this pandemic has been a definition in crass. Closer to home there have been embarrassing examples of rule-fudging in relation to GAA teams.

But in the overall it has been notable throughout how successful the health protocols around behind-closed-doors sport have been. No major spread of the virus have been traced to it. Containment has appeared to largely work.

Fears that the All-Ireland championships might provoke a spike in infection rates were thankfully not realised. Rates have rocketed in Ireland but for much wider social reasons than people celebrating or consoling on the back of match results.

Logic

So the logic that allowed elite sport get treated as a special case in the first place still looks to apply.

There are still employment arguments such as the thousands of jobs tied up in racing. There is the economic impact on sectors whose financial outlook is dire without TV revenue, and the inevitable consequences for their grassroots operations as a result once the pandemic is over.

If this can continue at no cost to the fight against Covid-19 then any counter argument largely comes down to tone and appearances.

Perhaps the most important justification for sport to be made a special case remains the psychological boost that having it on our screens represents to a society in lockdown.

Inevitably such statement can sound like self-serving rubbish to those immune to its appeal.

Nevertheless official credence in it is such that Taoiseach Micheal Martin backed the GAA’s championships going ahead last August by insisting: “I think it would be a symbol that a country is fighting this virus, that it’s not going to surrender to it.”

Government positions inevitably fluctuate. So can the status of activities. Racing continues behind closed doors but a halt was brought this week to point to point action under newly-clarified elite criteria.

There lingers a suspicion too that if infection rates remain stubbornly high then administrations eager to be seen to act might move to make a highly visible gesture.

Such a step, it can be argued, would underline the seriousness of the situation and resonate with those who associate sport with a frivolity glaringly at odds with so many people’s reality on the ground.

At this stage though it’s hard to believe anyone isn’t aware of how serious this is.

Doubts about the probity of entertainment industries continuing when so many others are shut down, and unease at the seeming gap in priorities compared to front-line workers, show an admirable sense of perspective.

Ultimately though the justification for allowing elite sport to continue behind closed doors hasn’t changed. The substance of the argument remains even if the optics jar sometimes.

Watching some overpaid and under-informed footballer behave stupidly is enough to make anyone turn away in disgust. Such queasiness is understandable when contrasted to truly heroic behaviour by others towards the sick and vulnerable.

But turning everything off risks being a counter-productive gesture that may do more harm than good.

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