Sport will be last duck in the row in return to normality after coronavirus

Whole new ball game: It feels difficult to imagine that we are within months of a return

The GAA could be one of the last sports to return to action. Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

The GAA could be one of the last sports to return to action. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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Sports fans don’t ask for much. We just ask for sport, any oul’ biteen of it at all that you’d have going there, sir. And, fair enough, right now, that suddenly feels like a lot. But we are simple folk. Scorn not our need for this stuff. Forgive us our imaginings of what it will feel like when we have it back.

As a society, we’re at an interesting point of the crisis. The initial shock has passed. This is here, it’s happening, there’s no escaping. Even Trump and Johnson have come around to the notion you can’t spin and lie your way out of a pandemic. Or at least, you can only lie and spin your way around so much of it before the bodies start piling up. Once Trump started using the phrase “tremendous deaths” in his nightly ramblings, you knew the time for finagling had passed.

So now, we’re hunkering down. That’s what this stage is about really. Eat, sleep, repeat. Eat, sleep, repeat. Do a bit of work if you’re lucky enough to still have work you can do. Keep the kids in some sort of order. Get out the door and see how far two kilometres takes you. Eat, sleep, repeat. Eat, sleep repeat.

What then of the stages yet to come? Disobedience of some form is presumably the next one. There’s certain to be a bit of fraying around the edges of public forbearance, maybe even in the next week or so. Where would you set the over/under on the next news report of Gardaí breaking up a party? This weekend? Good Friday?

So far, there has been a widespread solidarity, an in-this-together sense about the whole thing. But it won’t take much for that to start to fracture either. If the rapacious ghouls at AIB can choose the middle of a global health and unemployment crisis as the time to nail customers for quarterly fees – and if nobody in Government makes them wind their necks in – then how long before other industries start to really kick up?

The one thing we know is that the return to normality won’t happen at the drop of a flag. There’s going to be a lot of boundary-pushing and colouring outside the lines by businesses who will see it as a matter of simple survival to get everything up and running again. That will bring its own pushback and some level of moral outrage. The first ones out of the traps will have to decide what sort of tolerance they have for the shaming that will come their way.

For the people involved in running sport and managing its return, the one advantage they have is the inherent time lag. Sport was the first thing to go, not because it was expendable but because it provided a rapid way of changing the thinking and habits of a massed chunk of humanity. The corollary will be true of its return.

Sport will come back slowly, carefully and in stop-start phases because that’s how the world is going to be behaving over the next year or so. Organised sport is a function of a settled society. It can only happen in ordinary circumstances. It will be the last duck in the row.

In the here and now, asking what sort of timescale that’s going to involve is pointless, like kids asking are-we-there-yet the minute you pull onto the motorway. A much better use of our time is to imagine what the world needs to look like in order for sport to exist again.

Take the ongoing rumble-tumble over the best way to end the various professional league seasons. The Premier League is obviously the one that takes up most of the bandwidth in this little corner of the globe but these conversations are going on all over – with the NBA in America, with the NRL in Australia, everywhere.

Each of them has strategically leaked some version of idea of a restricted-site, hermetically-sealed blitz-style tournament to finish things out. At first glance, this would look to be a winner all round. There’d be sport on TV, the competitions would get run off, sponsors would get their slice, the whole machinery around big-time sport would start clanking into gear. Significantly, it could feasibly give the smaller sports cover to start moving again too.

But to imagine it would work any time soon is to ignore the life we’re all living now. The notion of hot-housing a bunch of sportspeople for a month to get some games played might sound just about workable in theory but think about how it would need to happen in practice.

There’d have to be a cast-iron guarantee that it wouldn’t add to the spread of the virus, meaning all participants would have to be certifiably free of it. The UK, with its population of 66 million people, still can’t get its testing rate over 10,000 a day. Even if and when that number gets higher, can the Premier League really be seen to be commandeering warehouses of test kits for players, teams staffs, referees and broadcasters? It feels very difficult to imagine that we are within months of that being seen as a reasonable course of action.

On our own little patch of the sporting world, the GAA will be watching and waiting and holding fire. Gaelic games won’t be the first to come back. In fact, they might well be very close to the last. While the idea of a behind-closed-doors TV spectacle might be just about doable in the big professional sports that owe their very existence to television, it would be kind of defeating the purpose of the GAA championships to mirror that here.

When the championships are played, the GAA will be keen to paint them as a kind of communal awakening for the country. It will be about getting people out of their confinement again, being allowed to mix again, being confident and happy to be part of a crowd again. The return of the big sports, when they happen, will give the GAA some level of cover. But it will need to be sure that it’s a good idea and, more to the point, that its people are sure.

That feels a lot further away than the summer or even the autumn. The notion of a 2020 championship being played in 2020 seems like a foolish punt just now.

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