Numerous European attendance records have been set at soccer matches in Glasgow, Scotland; 147,365 spectators attended the 1937 Scottish Cup Final at Hampden Park, 149,415 were at the 1937 Scotland vs England match, and 136,505 attended Celtic vs Leeds United in 1970. In all these instances, supporters—the vast majority working class men—stood on steep, mostly uncovered, terraces. Such a design characterised virtually all British soccer stadiums at the time. Getting as many people as possible into the stadium meant little regard for sanitation, comfort, provision of food, and safety.
In recent years, the sport of women’s mixed martial arts (WMMA) has gained substantial popularity in North America. Many have viewed this increase in popularity as indicative of progress toward gender equality, as women have traditionally been discouraged from participating in sports that place a heavy emphasis on so-called “masculine” traits, such as physical strength, aggression, and dominance. Scholars, as well, have viewed the increased participation of women in combat sports optimistically, with some even discussing WMMA as a new “feminist frontier.”
Issues related to athlete welfare are impossible to ignore as the National Basketball Association (NBA) leaves the “bubble” behind and begins the 2020-21 regular season on December 22. As play resumes, sleep and athlete recovery will be a major area of media attention and discussion within the league.
It is no secret that NBA players are routinely exposed to poor sleep, jetlag, and overtraining. Teams play 82 games in a 6-month period and travel an average of 40,000 miles a season. Commissioner Adam Silver called rest a “significant issue,” and Michelle Roberts, Executive Director of the NBA Players Association, predicts that sleep will be an issue in future collective bargaining. Just last week, the NBA updated its rest policy, specifying that teams may face fines of $100,000 if they decide to sit out healthy players in nationally-televised games.
Given this context, promoting sleep may seem like an easy way to safeguard players’ wellbeing. But the rise of a “sleep-friendly” NBA shows that fostering athlete welfare is more complex than it may first appear.
Sport sociologists like Harry Edwards have long fought against the notion that sports and politics can be kept separate, battling back against assaults by people like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who in February 2018 told NBA star LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” In the midst of the NBA and WNBA finals, and at a time of intense political polarization, basketball fans ought to be aware of the stakes that exist for Black athletes and listen to their voices. How else can you as a fan ethically focus on the games if many of your favorite players say that they themselves cannot? In this brief essay, we offer some considerations for basketball fans today, building upon the work of many sports sociologists who have come before us.
A TIME magazine article recently discussed college athletes realizing their power to create meaningful change. While college athletes as a collective have great power, it is Black athletes in particular who are leading this charge by placing emphasis on their racial identity. Recent atrocities, such as the unjust shooting of Jacob Blake, as well as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, have placed increased attention on racism. Injustice has caused college athletes to speak out, when in the past, they have remained mostly silent.
Stories of sexual abuse and assault continually emerge from the world of college athletics. Heinous acts committed by people in positions of authority, such as Larry Nasser, Jerry Sandusky, and Richard Strauss, have come to light in recent years. In the news, we see countless examples of sexual assault by individual athletes at schools across the country. The consequences for offenders vary greatly because of cover-ups, lax investigations, and special treatment for athletes. Part of the problem is that the people who have a responsibility to report allegations of sexual assault, such as coaches, often fail to do so. Unfortunately, a forthcoming policy change is likely to make the situation worse.
In March 2020, COVID-19 abruptly halted sport as we know it across almost all ages, levels, and communities in North America and much of the world. In a matter of days we went from sport to no sport—from sport everywhere to nowhere. So what does this mean for sports fans and for society in general? What are the implications of a society without sport?
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June 2020, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol, England pulled down a statue of Edward Colston from its pedestal, dragged it through the city’s streets and dumped it into the harbour. Colston, who some revered for his philanthropic donations to schools and hospitals, was a 17th century slave trader. He made his fortune through his involvement in the Royal African Company, a mercantile corporation that oversaw the forced removal, transportation and annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Black Africans. The dismantling of his statue – which had stood for 125 years – was an iconic event in the demonstrations across the United Kingdom, adding new momentum to campaigns to remove or replace public monuments, and to rename buildings that have racist, colonial connections.
Since COVID-19 has shut down sporting events in North America and many parts of the world, sports fans are desperately trying to find anything to watch. In North America, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League had to suspend their seasons indefinitely, NCAA March Madness was cancelled, and Major League Baseball, which was set to start the season at the end of March, has not yet decided on a potential date to open the 2020 season despite creative contingent plans being floated around by league officials. With no baseball games on the schedule in North America, baseball enthusiasts can turn to Taiwan, where its professional baseball league started the season on April 11. To abide by social distancing policies of Taiwan, no fans are allowed in stadiums, but robot spectators fill the bleachers in lieu of actual people.
The COVID-19 pandemic has systemically disrupted sport organizations and spectator sporting events around the world. Major and minor sporting events have been cancelled, youth sports have been put on hold, and professional leagues have followed the National Basketball Association (NBA) in suspending their current seasons. “Social distancing” largely underpins these unprecedented adjustments, as sport organizations heed the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The disruptions will undoubtedly result in a financial hit for leagues, teams and players, and exacerbate the precarious economic situations of low-wage stadium and arena workers. For women’s sports, the pandemic has meant the sudden interruption of recent progress made in the push for greater financial equity and media coverage. Amidst fears of a pending economic recession, American consumers now must adapt to living without much of their common sporting entertainment for at least the near future.