Re-Forming Sport Beyond COVID-19

by Anthony Weems

In April of this year, the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University hosted a webinar titled Around the World: COVID-19 & Sport where a group of panelists discussed the state of sport in their respective communities and/or nations. Toward the end of this discussion, Simon Chadwick, Professor of Eurasian sport, challenged the panelists and viewers to envision sport beyond the immediate effects of the virus on sport. Given the overarching significance of sport, this is a critically important task in which sport scholars, athletes, and activists focused on justice should be involved – if and when circumstances permit.

Why does this matter?

  • Sport is a pervasive institution that touches and shapes the lives of billions of people around the world.
  • Sport is a distinctly political institution serving as a key site for repression and resistance.

With the “shutting down” of many sporting organizations globally in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there has since been significant pressure to bring sports back to an operational capacity – both for cultural and for economic reasons. Several leagues have attempted their own versions of a return, with varying levels of success (or failure). For example, after months of criticism and lack of preparation, several colleges and universities around the United States have elected to cancel or postpone their fall sports. However, a core element in the overall discussion on the (ir)responsibility of even holding sport events during a global pandemic has been how the pending return of sport is sure to have lasting political ramifications for much of the world. For example, in the United States, President Donald Trump and other conservative figures have been intimately attached to the idea of a sporting return for their own set of politics. But beyond the immediate threats of widespread death, destruction, and further economic collapse caused by premature returns to sporting activity, still much remains to be seen as to what the politics of sport might look like in a post-COVID-19 world.

Here are a few questions we are looking to answer with the return of sport around the world:

  • What will the return of sport look like and how will it continue to take place?
  • What politics will be (re-)articulated in the return process of sport?
  • With several inequalities coming to light in the fallout of COVID-19 along with the continued rise of an authoritarian U.S., what are some next steps in fighting for justice through sporting spaces?
  • How can we make sure that the “return” of sport is done in a more equitable fashion than is was before?

With widespread anti-racist movement in recent months, there have been some positive changes. For example, in a slew of reactive moves, the NFL franchise in Washington D.C. finally elected to retire its racist mascot while also hiring Jason Wright as the first Black team president in NFL history. But the pressure for Washington to make these changes should not be understated. This was less of a progressive move by the franchise and more of a preservation move for the majority owner, Dan Snyder, and other top executives. People made this change. Activists made this change by organizing and pressuring the organization for decades. Noted by Kevin Blackistone, anti-racist rebellions are “what it takes” to make these changes.

Despite the whirlwind of events that have taken place in 2020 and the political chess match (with real human consequences) leading up to a presidential election in the U.S., there are several key insights that can be drawn when trying to envision the future of politics in sport.

  • Sport’s “return” will continue to play a central role in the politics of elite-white-male domination.
  • A highly volatile sport environment further pronounces social, economic, and political inequality.
  • Because of sport’s role in the politics of domination, it will remain a key site for social, political, and economic resistance.

As much of the world continues to grapple with the devastating impacts of COVID-19, racism, sexism, economic inequality, fascism, ethno-nationalism, and a host of other threats to peace, justice, and security, one question remains: Where do we stand? Do we passively await sport’s return as spectators or do we actively engage with the body politic? Whatever our individual answers might be, sport will undoubtedly play a role in the final outcome.

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