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Thanks for the Game:  Restoring Respect to Sport

by Neil Rollings

The suspension of the known world required by the current pandemic has had a widespread impact.  It has exposed – by omission – what is important.  Most significant has been the lack of human contact: seeing friends, personal interaction and shared endeavours.

Another factor has been the lack of significant moments in life.  When every day is essentially the same, the highs and lows disappear.  Groundhog Day brings no hope for excitement, simply another experience of the same events with nothing unexpected.  People will forget what they did in lockdown because it had no emotion attached to it to strengthen significance or memory. There were no longer seven days in the week.  There was one day, repeated seven times.

The absence of sport at both spectator and participation levels has contributed to this.  Teams provide a framework for both social interaction and emotional moments.  Training and playing with friends, drawn together by shared endeavour, has been sorely missed.  Watching elite sport, drawn together by shared affinity: without this, there is suddenly less to talk about.  There is certainly less to get excited about.    The lockdown has shown how important sport is in the lives of so many people.  Far from being a pointless distraction which takes time away from more important activities, it has been confirmed as fulfilling the basic human needs for connection and excitement.

The pandemic also provides an opportunity to reflect on what is valuable about sport.   It turns out that the goals, the results and the competitions are not the most important thing: they are the mechanisms by which the important outcomes are achieved.  It is not the league table that has been missed, as much as the sharing of excitement with friends.

When sport returns, it provides an opportunity to evaluate what is important.  And this includes the role played by the opposition and the officials.  Over recent years, there has been an incremental, creeping decline of respect for the other people who are necessary to make the game work.  Players, coaches and spectators have come routinely to address officials with a vocabulary of constant criticism.  In many games, implied dissent is endemic.  Referee microphones from the elite game reveal a constant challenge to the authority of officials.  Inevitably, this comes to be emulated at the school and recreational level.  Spectators feel free to comment adversely on players and officials.  The opposition become the enemy, not the essential collaborators in an experience from which everyone benefits.   All this can result in matches being conducted in an atmosphere of mild hostility, or worse.  The tone of the occasion can become sour and confrontational. 

The forced break in the continuity of sport provides an ideal opportunity to re-boot.  The pandemic has shown what is valuable about the experience.  There is a chance for sport’s influencers at all levels to re-calibrate the environment.   Many things will be different when contests are restored, and it is an opportunity to ensure that respect is one of them.  Not the token, sullen, handshake before and after the game.  These gestures are cheap. This is not what demonstrates respect: it is the behaviour of players, coaches and spectators in moments of high emotion that determine the tone of the occasion.  A positive environment is one that recognises the effort and contribution of others, rather than seeing them as a legitimate target for covert aggressiveness.   High stakes, top-quality competition does not require enmity between the participants. 

Socialising has been one of the highest profile victims of the crisis: it has been missed so badly, because it is fundamental to human connection.  Socialising with the opposition after the game is a declining dimension of sport at many levels: the new world gives a great opportunity to restore it. But someone has to take the lead.  Teachers, coaches, managers and other influencers have to take responsibility for the values they promote, the behaviour of players and spectators and the atmosphere in which sport takes place.  They need to focus on replacing narrow bitterness with a warmer culture. 

Many aspects of life will have changed forever post-pandemic: the world of sport could be one of them.  It turns out that one of the things we have missed most are the teammates, the opposition and the referee.  There could be new sincerity and significance in the post-match salutation: “Thanks for the Game”