London, United Kingdom – In difficult times, sport is usually there for us. But when we need it most, the arenas, the fields, the courts, the rings, are empty.
One of the many cruel aspects of the coronavirus crisis is the separation it has imposed on hundreds of millions of people. Isolated from family and friends, locked down to save lives.
The sporting calendar provides routine, comfort, identity. Many of us bookmark our lives with the flow of sporting action, the support of our teams, the excitement and debate that sport can provide. It is not just possible, but commonplace, that your team winning lifts your mood. But it is more than that. As a child, the routines of sport, the certainties of the fixture list, gave me stability. And we are craving stability.
What we are collectively suffering is grief. And do not underestimate that the absence of sport plays a part in that, to those whose life it enriches daily.
As a sports correspondent, action plays a surprisingly limited part in my brief. So this has actually been a busy time for someone who needs to concentrate on the governance, business and politics of sport – namely, how sport copes with this crisis, how it resumes, behaves, recovers, changes.
What has changed for me is the backdrop, working from home rather than location.
When you deal with so much self-interest, cheating and corruption, and how sport has been consumed by money, your love of sport can take a hit.
But this is the time of year I usually love. When winter turns to spring, sport is a beautiful thing for me.
The county cricketers emerge in their whites, the lush green outfield, the sound of bat on ball and gentle applause. The call for a run in a watery spring sun.
The green baize of a hushed arena as the world snooker championship unfurls for 17 days in Sheffield. When Alex Higgins beckoned his wife and young daughter in 1982, the fragility of the swaggering genius. With each passing year, the memory becomes poignant. How sport becomes life.
An evening kick-off at sunset, and your team’s kit glows red. The wait for the title, the trophy. The football season hurtles towards a conclusion, games that can secure a place in history. Quarter-finals, semi-finals and football at Easter time has a special feel. It’s the smell of spring, the emerging warmth and anticipation of decisive moments.
And in recent years, a new treat. My favourite sport of the year: “March Madness”. I could always take or leave basketball. Then came jetlag on a work deployment to Houston and a 3am documentary: “I hate Christian Laettner.” The extraordinary background to Duke’s college hoops team. When the arrogant, controversial Laettner made a stumbling speech to father-figure coach Mike Krzyzewski I was in, engaged, transfixed.
And in 2018, March Madness gave us the greatest sports story of recent years. The Cinderella run of Loyola Chicago to the final four. A team inspired by their 98-year-old chaplain and superfan Sister Jean. Buzzer beaters, mayhem, beautiful. Sport at its best.
And the NBA. Oh, Ja Morant. At the start of last year, I had never heard of him. Now, he’s my number one in sport. True story. Please just Google him if you’re not a basketball fan. The guy is unreal. A joy. I was looking forward to him taking the unfancied Memphis Grizzlies into the playoffs. His time will come. He’s fearless. We can learn from him.
And just before the world changed, some of us drafted our fantasy baseball teams for the first time. It will be back. It will all be back.
Just as key workers should never return to being under-appreciated and underpaid, sport must also now know its place - as a wonderful diversion, not an endless pursuit of money.
When sport returns, it won’t be the same. It can’t be the same. Much of my work explores what is wrong with sport. Teams that exist for communities have become the playthings of the rich. Television and the media has too much say. Fans are an afterthought. Much of what we see cannot be trusted. Dopers, cheaters – the business that sport has become.
Just as key workers should never return to being under-appreciated and underpaid, sport must also now know its place – as a wonderful diversion, not an endless pursuit of money. Wealthy English football clubs furloughing non-playing staff is a disgrace. That is not what the UK government fund was designed for. This must not be forgotten. How we acted in this crisis should show who we are, and how we should be seen. That includes football club owners.
A few months ago, which seems like a lifetime ago, a small Al Jazeera team spent a week in the northern English town of Bury, near Manchester. We reported on how their 134-year-old club had been taken away from them. Our reports were not about football, they were about loss.
Now, we all know how Bury FC fans feel. And we all need to learn from their spirit. It’s often said, “You don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.” I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment. The people of Bury knew exactly what they were losing.
Like so many businesses, many historic sports clubs will struggle to survive the unprecedented and devastating hit than the coronavirus crisis has given them. Sadly, we need to be braced for a different sporting landscape, where some haven’t survived.
We miss you, sport. Come back ethically sounder, environmentally sounder, and with a bit more humility. Come back safely. But come back soon.