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?
Sociologists of sport have documented the ways in which sport serves as one of society’s most important tools of socialization. As human beings, we are inextricably and inherently social. In this context, sport often serves as one of the most entertaining, effective, and memorable ways for many people to feel connected, to get to know one another, and to cultivate a sense of community. In many ways, sport is a form of escapism from our busy, social-media-saturated, often energy-depleting lives. It is a highly commercialized and commodified sector used to entertain and distract. From a youth development standpoint, sport participation can serve as a positive activity in building character, teaching life skills, and developing mental, emotional, social, and physical wellbeing. Moreover, it has the ability to engender and facilitate connections with other people – it is, fundamentally, a form of human competition that is built, guided, and glued together by human social relations. Of course, sport is not without faults and flaws, having frequently been a site of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, animal abuse, and environmental degradation.
While we should not overlook such problems, sport often functions as a way to feel human, helping many people across ages, abilities, levels, races, and sexes feel a certain sense of belonging, community, and identity that isn’t found to the same extent in other cultural practices. Through sport, we are able to be around people who like the same teams we like and cheer with us as “our” team scores a touchdown. Such practices can build bonds, individually and collectively. Sport is often associated with large social gatherings, and these kinds of gatherings are loaded with cultural meaning. More to the point, these gatherings are in many ways the cultural frontrunners in identity-forming, friend-making, and community-building.
So what happens when sport is abruptly halted, when socialization through the physical medium of sport (that is, when the act of playing and watching) is no longer a thing to be enjoyed or entertained by? The answer, perhaps, lies in the evident importance and impact of sport through its absence. The United Nations, for example, identified the disruptions to sport as a concern, while urging sport organizations to find new ways to engage with fans and mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19 on well-being and social development. People are certainly still interested in sport, as conversations about sport on social media increased during the initial lockdown period. If anything, the absence of sport has galvanized its sociocultural significance in terms of social relations, particularly in the age of social media and online engagement.
In a recent study conducted by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, 46% of participants said that the stoppage of sport had made them depressed, 52% said they feel lonely and isolated, and 30% said they wanted to seek a mental health professional. As social beings, what does “social distancing” really mean for us, and how will this impact how we socialize within/through sport in the future? Sport can be seen as an integral part of our society with respect to connection, community, and social development. Accordingly, having sport as we know it disrupted can indeed inhibit human interaction/socialization, in turn engendering a decline in mental health. Because sport is one of the most celebrated, popular, treasured, income-generating, policy-making, and nation-and-character-building sectors in North America, sport is important. Many sporting competitions and activities could be postponed until well into 2021. So, it may be that perhaps the lack of sport and the anxieties felt with this reality will provide a kind of shared nostalgia, a collective apprehension woven by the love and wanting of it.
Emma Calow is a second year PhD student in the American Culture Studies program at Bowling Green State University. Her program track is ethnicity, gender, and social identity, with a concentration in sport studies. Her research interests lie in sport and society as they intersect with race, gender, American nationalism, and athlete activism. You can find her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emma-calow-she-her-hers-71489ba5/