The Coronavirus Provides a Reminder

2nd May 2020

For those of us who take an interest in watching sport, it is always worthwhile to recognise that there are others for whom the whole concept is ridiculous – or, indeed, abhorrent. The standard comments of disdain are familiar: “grown men hitting a ball into a hole with a stick…”, “overpaid prima donnas kicking a pig’s bladder…”, and so on.

I was conscious of all this when, in the final chapter of An Ordinary Spectator, I attempted to summarise the reasons why I had been continually drawn to watching live sport, in the flesh, over a period of half a century.

My conclusions were perhaps not that surprising: admiration at seeing elite performers at the top of their game; recognition of personal qualities such as leadership and courage; the scope for drama, in which the arena is the stage for the performing players; the sense of tradition and continuity attached to much sporting activity; the signals that sport sends as a barometer for society as a whole; and, not least, the role of sport in contributing to my self-identity and my sense of place in the world.

At this time, when the coronavirus is taking such a heavy toll on human life (as of yesterday, almost a quarter of a million deaths reported across the world, including more than 28,000 in the UK), it might seem irrelevant – if not insensitive – to concern oneself with matters sporting. But the effects of the virus are not only in terms of premature mortality rates; they are also be found in virtually every aspect of our lives that, until only two short months ago, we had been taking for granted. Like most people, I suspect, I have found it extremely difficult to make sense of it all: to think clearly about what it means for us now and what it will mean in the future.

It is in this context – and to persuade myself that I remain capable of some sort of detached and rational analysis – that I have been reflecting on the huge disruption that the coronavirus has brought to the holding of all sports events, large and small. In effect, I have been encouraged to revisit the question of what it is that watching sport brings to our everyday lives. In doing so, I now recognise that the answer is to be found in themes that are far wider than the mainly sport-related ones that I had previously identified.

As before, I must also acknowledge that any consideration of this issue is bound to be heavily influenced by one’s particular circumstances – age, upbringing, location, and so on. However, I shall attempt to complement the personal perspective with a more general assessment of what it is that watching sport provides for us as a whole. What, indeed, is it that the coronavirus has reminded us that we are missing?

The subject matter is hugely wide-ranging, of course, and, over time, I am sure that the area will generate a rich seam of research for sociologists and psychologists and that many learned academic papers and books will result. For the present, at this stage of sport’s shutdown – it is now 7 weeks since the postponement of all professional football in the UK – let me offer some initial views by identifying half a dozen key points.

The obvious place at which to start is to recognise that watching sport takes up some of our time: it occupies some of the precious minutes (or hours) between waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. When this use of time is suddenly (and completely) taken away, we struggle (at least at first) to find a replacement. (In the current circumstances, this point also clearly applies to other leisure activities – going to the theatre, watching a concert, going to the pub et al – and the effect is magnified a thousand-fold when all these activities are removed at the same time).

The media picked up on this very quickly. Perhaps unreasonably quickly. One of the football correspondents of The Scotsman – under the heading “We’re kicking our heels without football” – stated that “it feels like we have woken up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland”. And this was on March 16th, the first Monday after the country’s soccer programme (including the previous day’s Rangers-Celtic match) had been postponed.

Of course, watching sport is more than simply a time-filler. There are occasions when we persuade ourselves – perhaps erroneously – that it is a worthwhile activity in its own right. We consider that it has a merit of its own so that, when we take our place in the stand or on the terrace, we are with the virtuous. It is part of our response when we seek to address Rudyard Kipling’s query whether we “can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”.

In the present circumstances, given the lack of sports-spectating options, the logical follow-up has been to consider how else we might spend our time. It was no accident that the impressively quirky White Rose Forum – an online discussion group for followers of Yorkshire cricket – quickly developed a thread listing the activities that its members were intending to pursue in the absence of watching any matches: cooking with exotic sauces, learning the guitar, completing the novel (writing, not reading), improving basic German language skills… (The last two were mine incidentally). An interesting question for a later date will be the extent to which, in turn, the eventual resumption of sports watching will replace these activities as we revert back to “normal”: largely, but not wholly, I expect.

A related point is that watching sport helps to provide a structure to our lives. Much of sports spectating has a rhythm or a cycle to it: the fortnightly home soccer match, the first day of the County Championship season, the Boxing Day rugby match, and so on. Allied to the events that we turn up to watch at first hand are those that we might not see in the flesh (or even on television), but which we register as having a place at a certain time in the calendar: the Boat Race, the London Marathon, the Grand National…

I suspect that the planning of our schedules – daily/weekly/monthly/annual – around these regular events is done largely subconsciously. They constitute an unseen sketchpad on which we can place our own specific entries. In my case, earlier this year, I had some enjoyment in planning the contents of a spectating timetable that lasted from the spring into the autumn: a women’s football match in Glasgow, some cricket at Old Trafford, a Euro2020 match at Hampden Park, an Ashes rugby league test in Leeds. These events were staging-posts for the year, around which I could fit in the important (non-sporting) occasions with family and friends: the holiday in Spain, the West End theatre trip, the annual visit to the parents’ grave. Without these irregular markers, the future stretches ahead, shapeless and empty.

A further feature of sport spectating – again obvious – is that it provides us with social contact. For many, this takes the form of membership of an identifiable group – for example, as a football club’s supporter in a replica shirt or as part of the “Barmy Army” of England cricket fans bewildering the locals in Bridgetown or Colombo.

However, even when we are watching an event by ourselves, we are also part of a communal audience – perhaps in a crowd of 60,000, perhaps with the other man and his dog – simultaneously observing the activity in front of us (though not necessarily seeing the same thing). This provides the opportunity for the type of interaction – in a conversation or a debate or a stadium’s roar – which we (occasionally at least) seek as social animals.

In both An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator and in the subsequent blogs, I have regularly reported on the fleeting connections that I have made with strangers during the course of my sports spectating: the elderly man at a Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire cricket match at Headingley who told me that his father had been killed in the Second World War; the season-ticket holder at Tyneside worried about the Hearts team’s defensive frailties; the young lady named Stephanie in San Antonio, Texas, who came to my rescue after I had been to a high school American Football match and missed the last bus into town… How else but through watching sport would we have entered each other’s lives at those particular places at those particular times and, for a brief period at least, mutually enriched them?

And if not with strangers, then with family and friends. In An Ordinary Spectator, I refer to some of the friends – from adolescence and college and work – with whom I have shared the spectating experience over these many years. Post-working life, there have been additional and welcome members of the cast list. Perhaps most poignantly, the feedback to that book confirmed the hugely significant role that watching sport had provided in the bonding of family members – fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, older siblings and younger upstarts – on the terrace or in the stand. My story is no different: the book begins with me (as a 6 year-old boy) sitting on my father’s shoulders at a rugby match in south Leeds and his presence is a regular feature in the narrative right through to the final page.

The contact is with places as well as people. In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I noted HG Bissinger’s brilliant line in Friday Night Lights, when he describes the outcome of a visit to a high school football game in Marshall, Texas, by a delegation of Russians who had been visiting a nearby US Air Force base: “[T]hey don’t understand a lick of [American] football, but… their understanding of America by the end of the game will be absolute whether they realise it or not”.

I like to think that I do understand more than a lick about football but, even so, there can be no doubt that my understanding of America (and Texas in particular) was enhanced after my evenings watching the high school football at the Alamo Stadium and the college football in the Alamodome (which are different venues) in San Antonio. Just as my understanding of local communities was enhanced after watching the FC Union Berlin (association) football team at the wonderfully named Stadion an der Alten Forsterei (Stadium Near the Old Forester’s House)in east Berlin or the Westport St Patrick’s Gaelic Football team in County Mayo. Prior to the lockdown, as I have continued my occasional tour of the soccer grounds of Scotland, I would have been remiss not to have spent some time walking the streets of the relevant towns and getting a sense of place. How else would I have seen the buildings and sites that capture the history of Alloa or Annan or Dumfries?

Finally, I refer back to a conclusion in An Ordinary Spectator: that I (we?) watch sport because it provides drama.

“Sport is drama and conflict. Sport is the battle for honour and honours. And an important part of the enjoyment in watching sport is to see the resolution of that battle and its effects on the winners and losers”.

I noted that the duration of the drama can take many forms: the long build-up to the event, perhaps weeks or months; the length of the contest itself, whether over 80 minutes or 4 days, or – as illustrated by the dozen “nano-dramas” that I identified in that volume – a mere split-second of action.

I now think that there is another dimension to this. The drama of sport is not only performed in front of us. It takes place within us. It generates a set of questions about ourselves that we may or may not choose to answer. How would we have responded in that given situation? Would we have taken that steepling catch? Would we have scored that penalty kick? Could we have made that try-saving tackle? From the safety of beyond the touchline or the boundary rope, we can ask ourselves these questions and – after we have invariably answered positively – we can take pleasure in the success that we have vicariously achieved.

Jurgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool FC – whom I have quoted with admiration relatively recently (“The Coronavirus: Economics, Questions and Priorities”, 14th March 2020) – has stated that the halting of sports events is “a reminder that sport is the most important of the least important things”. It is an impressive line, I think: one which assists in cutting the ground from under the “hitting a ball with a stick” and “pig’s bladder” advocates.

And so, following Mr Klopp’s lead – and addressing the question with which I began – of what do I think that the coronavirus has provided a reminder? In summary: that watching sports enables us to use up some of the time at our disposal; that it contributes to providing a structure to our lives; that it facilitates individual and communal contacts; that it encourages respect for local places and cultures; that it satisfies the need for drama; that it allows us to role-play, if only in our own minds.

It strikes me that, as we sit in our respective domains of self-isolation – perhaps worrying about our future physical and mental wellbeing – that is a fairly formidable catalogue: “the most important of the least important”, indeed.

A final, final thought. We will select from that catalogue again. At some stage in the future, we will watch the white-coated figures walk out to the middle of the ground and place the bails on top of the stumps. The batsman will take his guard and the bowler will mark out his run-up. And the umpire will shout: “Play”…

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