This essay, on the meaning of sport at a time when there isn’t any, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 19 April 2020, under the headline ‘It’s not just the spectacle we crave. Sport also offers identity, pride, hope’.
I tried. I really did. But I simply could not get into it. Belarusian football, that is.
As coronavirus has brought life to a standstill across the globe, so sport has disappeared from our calendar. And many sports, and sports fans, have taken to finding alternatives, from virtual races to replays of old matches to following Belarus football, one of the few football leagues still active.
‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ has, for a quarter of a century, been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko a leader with little tolerance for any opposition. While other countries have imposed lockdowns, Lukashenko has insisted that life, and sport, must continue as normal. And so, fans starved of football elsewhere have taken to the Belarus Premier League, which has signed a string of new broadcasting deals with foreign TV companies.
When tens of thousands are dying and hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, and when the lockdown in countries such as India and South Africa threatens to push millions further into poverty and starvation, debating how to slake a thirst for football might seem irrelevant, even distasteful. Not to mention the ethics of watching games in which players are forced to perform because a corrupt leader insists that all is well.
And yet there is something about sport that makes it meaningful even, perhaps especially, in a time like this. It is not just that to watch Rafael Nadal’s top-spin forehand or Lionel Messi toying with an opponent is to remind ourselves of the thrill of physical endeavour, it is also that we often forget the social significance of sport.
In his book Knowing the Score, the philosopher David Papineau contrasts the sporting views of the celebrated Liverpool manager Bill Shankly with those of the linguist and radical Noam Chomsky. Football, Shankly once remarked, ‘is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.’ Chomsky dismisses sport as something ‘which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence’.
Papineau is with Shankly. The Liverpool manager did not, of course, mean his words to be taken literally. It was just his Shanklyesque way of suggesting that, in Papineau’s words, ‘sport is just as serious as the rest of life’. But is it?
For most of history, sport was seen as an indispensable building block of the good society. Plato regarded sport as essential in the development of the virtues, especially fortitude. Martial arts in Japan have long been celebrated as a means of both spiritual development and social ordering. In 19th-century Britain, sport became an instrument through which to teach the ruling class to rule and the working class to obey. It’s only today, as the top layers of sport have been insufferably commercialised and turned into a mega-rich industry, that its moral and social significance has become obscured and it has become viewed primarily as a form of entertainment.
Much of the historical discussion about sport has explored the moral and social significance of engaging in sporting activity. But what about watching sport? ‘I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women,’ Nick Hornby writes in Fever Pitch. ‘Suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.’ It’s a wonderful account of fan obsession, almost to the point of derangement, something that many other fans would recognise.
Supporting a team becomes a strand of who you are and is absorbed into your identity, turning, in Papineau’s words, into one of ‘life’s projects’. Whether political, cultural, sporting or personal, each such project helps give meaning to one’s life. For the committed fan, the success of your team becomes in a sense bound up with your own emotions and welfare. Which is one of the reasons why Belarus football left me cold – I had no emotional attachment to any of the teams.
Being a fan is, however, not just a personal obsession. It also draws you into a collective project with thousands of other fans. In many towns, from Barnsley to Sunderland, football clubs are often one of most important social institutions. They provide not just a sense of civic pride, but also a kind of collective hope or aspiration. And in recent years, as wider political and social projects and identities have disintegrated, so the sense of solidarity provided by institutions such as football clubs has become more important.
Last week marked the 31st anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives, through a combination of being caged into an area too small to hold them and catastrophic policing that treated dying fans as hooligans. Police, politicians and sections of the media, most notably the Sun, scapegoated fans, inventing lurid stories about their behaviour and blaming them for the carnage. What began as a terrible football tragedy turned into an inspirational campaign for social justice, which has left its mark on British politics.
The week before the anniversary, the board of Liverpool FC reversed a decision to furlough non-playing staff – getting the government to pay 80% of their wages – after outrage from fans who insisted that it was morally indefensible for a multimillion-pound business to demand state funding. Two other Premier League clubs, Spurs and Bournemouth, also backed down after fan pressure.
Yet if all this reveals the social significance of sport, the pandemic has put it in perspective. When the lockdown brought the Premier League to a close, Liverpool were 25 points clear at the top and coasting to their first league title for 30 years. Many Liverpool fans were aghast at the thought that this season might be declared null and void and the title snatched from their grasp.
The Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, a man often compared to Shankly, wrote a message to supporters. Football, he wrote, may be ‘the most important of the least important things’. But ‘today, football and football matches really aren’t important at all’. What matters is to ‘think about the vulnerable in our society and act where possible with compassion for them’. Sport is not meaningless, but neither is it as serious as the rest of life.
The sporting calendar will eventually return to normal, Liverpool will (hopefully) be crowned Premier League champions and sport will allow for a catharsis of joy as life rebounds. And we will perhaps have learned that somewhere between the words of Shankly and those of Klopp lies both sporting truth and social wisdom.
The photo is of Liverpool player Sadio Mané, a still taken from a video.