A white women with long hair, wearing glasses and a coat stands in a field with bushes and trees in the background.
During the current suspension of sport due to COVID-19, we should consider the importance of “doing nothing” for a healthy, happy life (photo of artist Jenny Odell, author of “How to Do Nothing,” by Ryan Meyer)

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.

This momentary disruption of the sport industry, however, does present us with an important opportunity for reflection on the role of sport in a future impacted by environmental and public health crises. For decades, scholars have documented the power of sport in shaping modern, capitalist life. Sports are “big business,” with corporations, advertisers, universities, media outlets, and non-governmental organizations raking in billions of dollars each year. Sports promote values like self-interest, competition, and individual achievement, values that serve the interests of capitalist economies. Recent business management research underscores the importance of sports and exercise for improving the health and productivity of workers. Yet, we are now entering a period of world history defined by the harmful effects of human activity on the environment. Researchers like Rob Wallace argue that “agribusiness”—agriculture dominated by multinational corporations—has directly fueled the rise of pandemics and dangerous infectious pathogens. In the world of sports, we are increasingly aware of the immense environmental consequences of large-scale sporting events, calling into question their sustainability in this era of climate change. “It is hard to think of a better formula,” environmental activist George Monbiot wrote, “than a global sporting event for causing maximum environmental damage.” Maybe “we should recognise that some sports are simply too wasteful to be sustained.”

As we come to grips with the adverse effects of human activity on the planetary ecosystem, a number of authors are writing about the importance of “doing nothing” in the pursuit of a happy life. American artist Jenny Odell, in her recent bestselling book How to Do Nothing, suggests that “what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the ‘off time’ that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.” In other words, Odell argues that people should be allowed ample time for self-reflection, curiosity, solitude, “observation, and simple conviviality,” as these things are more important for living a healthy, happy life than one’s economic and technological productivity. Author Celeste Headley, in her new manifesto Do Nothing, similarly argues that we are missing these important moments for “lightheartedness and play” because “[w]e are members of the cult of efficiency, and we’re killing ourselves with productivity.” These are renewed calls for “doing nothing” that extend from earlier arguments about the importance of leisure time and shorter work hours for improving the lives of workers living in a capitalist society. In 1880, Marxist writer Paul Lafargue wrote that the working classes have a “right to be lazy” and pursue their own self-defined, creative projects. In 1932, British philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested limiting the workday to four hours and expanding leisure time for workers, arguing that “there is far too much work done in the world…immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.” These authors suggest that people have been defined by work and wage labor for too long. What if, following scholar Kathi Weeks, we imagined and moved toward a “post-work” society that valued activities alternative to wage work and approached leisure time as an “inalienable right”?

“Doing nothing” does not mean leading a life of unproductive idleness, but rather embracing the creative, healthful, and pleasurable qualities possible in the experience of unstructured leisure time. The “idle life,” we need to remember, is an idea historically tied to patriarchal attempts to restrict women’s civic and social opportunities (which often included sports and exercise) based on stereotypes regarding their physical inferiority and limited capabilities. However, we often think of things like sitting at a park in solitude as “doing nothing,” not because it actually is nothing, but because life under capitalism is often defined by one’s productivity and the “efficient”use of time. In this historic moment of social distancing and self-isolation, what if we reflected on the assumptions of human activity that inform our philosophies of life? What if we considered, for example, the social and environmental implications of our competitive activities, embracing activities and behaviors designed to make us mindful of our interconnectedness with each other and the Earth? Instead of outdoor, adrenaline sports like mountain climbing, which remains linked to problems of misogyny and is often based on the unsustainable notion that nature is an obstacle to conquer and overcome, we could engage with forms of meditation, which can improve cognitive functioning, instill a compassion for others, and enhance an awareness of one’s interconnectedness with nature. In short, we could embrace “doing nothing” by advocating practices that foster compassion, reflection, creativity, respect for the environment, and sustainable behaviors.

If we are to build a healthier, equitable society after COVID-19, we should rethink the value of competitive and commercial sports, and consider the benefits of activities we often equate with “doing nothing.” Historian Russell Jacoby writes that in this “age of permanent emergencies, more than ever we have become narrow utilitarians dedicated to fixing, not reinventing, the here and now.” As we respond to the damage brought by global pandemics, environment devastation, and consequences of an economic system based on the sanctity of the market place and one’s economic self-interest, we should also reflect and perhaps rethink social institutions like sports. The arrival of COVID-19 is requiring us to adjust to a new normal of social distancing and the absence of previously-accepted cultural practices like commercial sporting events. Perhaps, too, we can use this time to consider the possibility that “doing nothing” is more valuable and important to broader society than we once assumed.

Samuel M. Clevenger is a lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology at Towson University. His research focuses on the colonial politics of modern sport in American history, as well as the cultural and environmental politics of modern urban planning. His research has been published in Urban Planning, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, and Sport, Education and Society.