The Role of Sports During the Pandemic

Sports have traditionally served as a global unifier. Race, religion, politics, socioeconomic status and gender are all thrown out the window when supporters band together to celebrate (or commiserate) the result of a competition.

As Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

With the world in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and people feeling more isolated now more than ever with borders closed and stay-at-home mandates in place, sports—its athletes, personalities, executives, coaches, leagues, teams and fans—can again prove that the cohesive power of more is greater than any single individual.

“Athletes are role models in society. Kids listen to what athletes say more than they listen to their parents; that’s a reality,” two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol said. “Let’s utilize that in a time of need like this one in order to send the right message, in order to do the right thing, in order to unite and bring the best out of people in a time of uncertainty and adversity. That’s a chance we have right now.

“Instead of looking out for our own or pointing fingers or criticizing or being more separate than we were, it’s a time we can really come together. It’s an opportunity. I hope we don’t waste it.”

Officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, there are more than 4.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the globe and more than 380,000 deaths. The world has been in an indefinite standstill.

Sports in North America began spiraling into a series of suspensions following the NBA’s swift announcement on March 11 after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive. The MLB, NHL and MLS are also playing a waiting game this season, while the NFL is attempting to begin its 2020-21 campaign as scheduled on September 10. The 2020 Olympics were postponed until next summer. European soccer leagues were suspended.

Nearly two months later as the curve is beginning to flatten in certain countries and U.S. states, various sports have been resurrected under restrictive conditions.

The UFC held its first live event during the pandemic on May 9 despite a positive test from one of its fighters (whose bout was cancelled). NASCAR returned on May 17 after a nearly two-month hiatus as a result of COVID-19. Germany’s Bundesliga was the first major soccer league to restart, hosting games this past weekend without fans while implementing various health and safety measures. Spain’s LaLiga is hoping to return by mid-June, while English Premier League clubs voted to begin small group training sessions as early as today.

“This is a new circumstance, a new situation and it’s not easy to imagine what will happen in the future,” said FC Barcelona vice-president Jordi Cardoner, who tested positive for COVID-19 in early April. “At the end of the day, it’s a global problem. We are not the only ones affected by it, everyone is affected.

“… We have to learn from each other. There are a lot of things to discover because we’re all facing a new reality and it won’t be easy.”

Despite not training, training in a limited setting, or not being on the field playing in front of thousands as they normally would, athletes are utilizing this enforced break to not only focus on other things including their families, businesses and investments, furthering their education, and philanthropic efforts, but they are some of the main drivers behind the support, relief and education efforts around COVID-19.

NBA players including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, Zion Williamson, and Blake Griffin, for example, made donations to cover the salaries of hourly workers at arenas across the country. Approximately 100 NBA players and the NBA Players Association Foundation have donated a combined $5.5 million to nonprofits to assist in pandemic relief.

“I think athletes can play a critical role during this time and during the pandemic,” said Gasol, who is working with UNICEF, the Red Cross and the Gasol Foundation to encourage people, especially kids, to remain active and engaged during this time. “Athletes have a tremendous platform to attract people and lead movements. I would encourage any athlete and every athlete to try and do that in a positive manner.”

The Players Coalition, along with the NFL’s Inspire Change platform, donated more than $3 million to communities of color across seven U.S. cities and states that have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. Funding was distributed to hospitals, health systems and nonprofit organizations in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Florida and Louisiana.

Co-founder Malcolm Jenkins said people are in need of leaders, hope and direction now more than ever with so much uncertainty in the world amid the pandemic, which is causing ripple effects in all aspects of life.

“There’s a lot of need and I think as athletes we have the ability to advocate for people,” said Jenkins, a New Orleans Saints safety. “We have the ability to bring these issues to light and draw support, but also for us, really it’s just to sound the horn and continue to sound the horn and continue to be that microphone for those people.

“While we talk about how everybody in general is dealing with the crisis, I think it’s important for athletes who have a platform like us to represent those most affected and most vulnerable and often times under-supported.”

Not only are individual athletes utilizing their platform to help those affected by the pandemic, but individual clubs are as well. FC Barcelona has agreed to sell the naming rights for the 2020-21 season to its famed Camp Nou for the first time in the venue’s history with proceeds going toward COVID-19 relief. Camp Nou, which was built in 1957, is the largest stadium in Europe with a capacity of more than 99,000.

The Catalan-based club and its foundation is also working with partners including NikeNKE, Beko and Taiping Life Insurance to donate masks, medical equipment and other resources to local healthcare centers and facilities.

“When we say Barça is ‘More than a Club,’ we talk about social commitments and social responsibilities and we thought our first asset, the Camp Nou, should be supporting the situation that we’re in all together,” Cardoner said. “This was an opportunity to give back to society and those 350 million supporters we have all around the world. We want to do it and we’re proud about the possibility.”

While people anxiously await the steady return of sports amid the pandemic, its role and meaning continues to change during these trying times and moving forward. Sports are more than entertainment. They are more than an escape from reality. They are a platform for change. A platform to further conversation. A platform to help, inspire, educate and guide.

“There’s always been this tip-toe kind of dance around politics and crisis when it comes to sports,” Jenkins said. “Some people want to keep sports simply about sports and that’s that, but there’s also a consciousness behind it that sports have a larger responsibility to society that feeds it. … That mentality needs to switch and that starts with league leaders and our country’s leaders to be able to come together not only with a national plan but a way to really galvanize people and give hope.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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