Make Sports Great Again | Simon Bonney

I remember the ’98 World Cup as clearly as if it were yesterday. I’ve never been much into football, and neither has my dad, but much of my extended family is football mad and as such, growing up there was no escaping it. My cousins and I had St George’s cross shaved into our heads, my auntie flew England flags from the windows of her red Vauxhall and we attended many barbecues in our England kits. 

My primary school collected all the kids together for an assembly to watch England play if they were scheduled for a match during school time. The whole event was characterised by fun, togetherness and excitement. It was perhaps the only football tournament like it that I have such a vivid memory of, because it was perhaps the only such football tournament I have truly fully enjoyed, including any recent one.

I’ll remember the 2020 Euros for different reasons though. Although lockdown brought an atmosphere of camaraderie and community much like 1998, it just felt… different. It was different. It felt like football was only half the story, that people had to be cautious to support their team the right way, that every match England played was shadowed by a statement that someone was trying to make. Enjoying it felt like a performance, one which was being judged by everyone in the room. 

Down the pub – if it wasn’t your local – your reactions had to be measured and conscious, or you ran the risk of being mistaken for a racist. At work, when discussing it your conversation had to be nuanced. The politics of this tournament were completely unavoidable, and sadly, in the modern era, the fall out was predictable. 

Politics is certainly not new to the game. Perhaps a similar atmosphere was present in 1998 which I was ignorant to. Maybe I was too young to recognise it – being only 5 years old as I was- and I’m looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. 

Regardless of my naïveté then, nowadays the politics of the game destroys its enjoyability for me. Fans are lambasted for being too boisterous or uncouth. Criticism of players and managers has to be done with the utmost care and finesse so it’s not mistaken for, or spun as, some deeper, more sinister hatred. 

Queensbury regulations are now tacitly enforced by a media looking to exploit any situation they can in order to harvest it for its social justice leverage or virtue, and football pundits looking to galvanise their extremely well paid positions by appealing to the trendy editorials of the day are using their positions to grandstand when they really ought to just stick to commentary. Politics is being inextricably intertwined with the game, and it’s stealing all the enjoyment from the sport. 

It isn’t just football, either. The Olympics has seen this phenomenon reveal itself across the media board. Whether it be the rock star P!nk offering to pay the fine leveraged against the Norwegian women’s handball team for not wearing the right uniform, or Tom Daley declaring how ecstatic he is to be both a gay man and a gold medalist, to the German Gymnastics team protesting the traditional uniforms they have to wear as “sexualisation of women in the sport”. 

Everyone seems to have some pseudo political point to shoehorn into their performance in order to ensure that no matter what happens, it has a lovely peppering of virtue which guarantees that even if you catastrophically fail, you’re still going to find some media coverage. It’s like an insurance policy for failure, to be fair a wise policy for the USA women’s football team to take out, even if it’s becoming increasingly insufferable.

I wonder, as I see this become more commonplace and virtue signalling penetrates ever deeper into the fabric of public life, where things will end up. Aside from the laughably hollow nature of the protests being held, against women’s uniforms, for example, at a games featuring the concentration camp building, genocidal China, or the gay-hanging Iran.

The choice of protest is telling to the overall intention, which is essentially to build up the capital of virtue points – that new western currency that can be used to buy media exposure or social media followers. You want high reward, low risk (as with any other investment) and they seem to have struck gold when it comes to that holy trinity of western discrimination, gender, race and sex.

But it’s going to start coming at a cost, and this new capital will suffer from diminishing returns. Dividing sports fans between themselves will lead to apathy. With apathy will come falling support, as people seek to enjoy other things that don’t come with a social conscience requirement or a mid game social justice sermon. 

These athletes will sooner or later find themselves preaching to empty halls, as the thrill of watching multi millionaires chasing footballs, jumping around a sprung floor, hitting a ball over a net and all the rest wears off. People are creatures of habit, and habit is part of what keeps them coming back to sports. Preachy knee-taking and messages of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ in support of half-understood political causes will soon fall of deaf ears, to stadiums full of rolling eyes. What then? Kill the habit and risk killing the sport. 

Maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe we could rebuild football out of the ashes in the image of the 90’s. People were free to be antagonistic in team sports, or free of political pressure at the very least. Maybe we could go back to people protesting uniform rules behind closed doors, saving their political statements for political campaign trails, or even better the polling booth. Maybe we could go back to carefree camaraderie where all we want is for our country to win, where the athletes are patriotic and we don’t take every little piece of antagonism, criticism or teasing as bigotry or some profound new social heresy. Maybe we could go back to sports stars not having to pretend to care about every social issue facing the nation in order to qualify for their national team. One can dream…

Whatever happens, I truly hope the atmosphere of sport isn’t to permanently become this sporadic soap box for pseudo social justice warriors looking for a big paycheque of virtue and some easy social capital. How droll such a world would be. I fear, though, that that world is already here.

Photo Credit.

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