Why sport matters in the time of coronavirus
Scenes from a daughter’s footy training.
It’s early evening. The sun is setting; the temperature is sublime. The suburban ground by a river is fringed with trees and, thanks to recent rain, the oval is in a wonderful state of lushness that surely won’t last.
While my daughter trained at one end of the oval, a men’s and women’s Aussie Rules team trained at the other end, doing drills and kicking a footy around, whooping it up with the joy that comes from slotting a goal from the boundary with a well-executed drop punt, or taking a nicely-timed high mark.
All up there were probably about 60 people enjoying their time in this slice of autumn perfection as I ran laps bouncing a footy thinking about how sport brings us together.
Sport is that strange glue that can unite a disparate group of people who share a common love of a game, a goal, an experience, the joy of achieving something together, the thrill of doing something well, the highs and lows of success and failure.
We are communal creatures, us humans, and sport like no other pastime is where we see it the most. It is where strangers come together with nothing in common except for a shared love of an idea that is a football team.
The parts change, players come and go, but the colours — the jersey or the guernsey — represent a history — shared experiences and memories. It is us.
No more than this time of the year. The NRL and AFL seasons are about to begin. All teams are equal. It is a time for hope. Anything is possible. It is a time for redemption, perhaps a new era. Fresh players have come into the team, after a few years the wayward child is finally knuckling down and has got really fit. The coach has a more direct game plan. Anything is possible.
But this year it’s tempered.
The world is battening down the hatches as daily comes the news of the spread of the coronavirus.
And daily comes the news from around the world of sporting events being cancelled, postponed or played in empty stadiums.
Football, tennis, motor sport and athletics have a big red line through them. Olympic preparation is in disarray.
So far Australia has been largely spared. But for how long?
The coronavirus feels like a creeping invisible threat that is circling ever closer, with an inevitability that it will affect Australian sport.
The CEOs of the NRL and the AFL have both flagged the possibility of playing games in empty grounds if the spread of the virus worsens.
Already football clubs are looking at the bottom line and wargaming what no crowds and reduced membership would mean for revenue.
And despite the growing power of television, it is still the experience of watching football live that gives us the greatest thrill. There is a power in a collective roar, or in a thousand people holding their breath.
You may not know the person sitting next to you, but chances are by the end of the game you’ve spoken to each other, shared your thoughts and experienced the joy of a win or the pain of a loss.
The empty grounds will put paid to that. We’ll still watch and barrack and yell, but the experience — even on the TV — will be flat without that background crowd noise.
But will it end there?
A football club is more than the 30 or 40 odd players on the roster. It is all the coaches, the physios, the masseurs, the trainers, the admin staff, the chefs, the media team.
The walls of a football club might house more than a hundred people. It’s a large workplace like any other.
It seems ludicrous to think football clubs are any different to the general community and can somehow be kept immune from coronavirus.
If it comes to locking punters out of stadiums, then surely the workplaces of football clubs will also be affected.
Once one player or member of the support staff catches the disease, the ripples will quickly spread as that person is quarantined. Will a whole club have to go into lockdown and, if so, what does that mean for the competition?
It’s going to be a very strange winter as we watch and wait while that inevitable creeping threat surrounds us.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
And here’s hoping that our sporting experience, whether it’s sharing the passion of watching our footy team from the stands or playing grassroots sport with our friends and teammates, can continue this winter despite the creeping threat.
As I ran around the boundary I wondered for how many more weeks my daughter would be training and playing, before that too is called off in the interests of public health.
This, of course, will pass. The coronavirus will burn out. We will get some immunity and hopefully a vaccine will be developed.
And in the meantime, let’s enjoy what we have while we can. May your footy team win, and may your kids learn new skills and make new friends, and may you score a goal from outside the penalty area.