The National Rugby League are planning to restart the competition on May 28, despite the probability that most of the population will still be required to practice social distancing or self-isolation.
The NRL’s innovations committee, fronted by former Balmain Tigers legend and now ARL Commissioner Wayne Pearce, seems short on detail but quite certain of the benefits of restarting.
Pearce spoke of the “support” they had received from both the New South Wales and Queensland governments, yet the next day, these governments seemed less enthusiastic than had been intimated.
Neither state’s health minister had spoken with the NRL, with both indicating it was not particularly high on their list of priorities.
Just how many people would be happy with an NRL restart? The announcement hasn’t been met with anything approaching even tepid enthusiasm. Every instinct tells you this is a terrible idea.
In a time when no more than two people can meet in public in NSW and still need to be 1.5 metres apart, when kids are being home-schooled, when simple grocery shopping trips become military operations, when police are fining people for being too far from home – when all that is happening, how is it somehow okay for players to train in squads of about 30, tackle, scrummage, hit, sweat and possibly bleed on each other?
Not only that, but show it all on TV to a general population that can’t visit their own parents or grandparents?
How many fans enjoyed watching games in empty stadiums? In European football competitions, if a club has spectator trouble, they are punished by having to play games behind closed doors. There’s a reason playing in front of no fans is seen as a punishment.
No matter how they try to spin it, any major sport which is played in front of no live crowd is not the same. It’s like peering through a gap in a fence to watch a team train.
However, the spectacle is a distant second to the ethical. If the NRL restarts in the next six weeks, it won’t be long before the AFL, A-League and Super Rugby look to get in on the act.
How does a parent explain to a young child, itching to go out and play with their friends or missing the major portion of their own competition, that it’s wrong to meet up with playmates but it’s perfectly fine for their sporting heroes to do it?
Professional sport often claims their players are role models. Right now, surely the best form of role-modelling is to do what we are all being asked to do, rather than the exact opposite.
There are also the resources, time and logistics of running a competition. State governments are flat-out trying to keep the general population safe and solvent, why should their time be distracted liaising with sporting codes, who would need to have almost all of the current restrictions relaxed in order to proceed?
And what of testing? Every participating player would need to be tested for COVID-19, and there are not an infinite number of testing kits.
Re-starting major competitions assumes that there is a greater importance attached to professional competitions than for the semi-professional, amateur, grassroots and informal layers of sports participation across the country.
It’s okay for the pros but not the rest of us? That doesn’t really gel with the latest marketing campaign of ‘We’re all in this together’.
Of course, much of the push to play is tied into the massive amount of money paid to televise games, so it’s about money and jobs.
Well it’s also about money and jobs for cafe and restaurant owners, small business operators, tourism companies, chain stores, fashion outlets, hairdressers…
This has hit everyone, professional sportspeople included. That status shouldn’t be a leave pass to have the rules not apply.
I miss sport. I miss playing it, watching it, coaching it, being involved in it in any form. As a fan, I could not watch a game where players put their health at risk for reasons other than that generally associated with their sport, especially not when everyone else is doing the right thing.
Either we are all in this together or we aren’t. That’s the choice professional sport has to make.