Things have moved quickly this week with the NCAA tentatively approving a move toward student-athlete compensation. Of course, it’s complicated. Here are the critiques that I’ve been reading and trying to wrap my head around.
One of the preservationist critiques is that only top athletes at top schools will benefit. This ignores a little thing we like to call “the market,” but hey, they’re trying. Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel makes a case for broader impacts.
While it feels like the globe has stopped spinning, two items in the news this week remind us that there is still much at play at the intersection of sport and world politics.
Tensions emerged this week between Japan and the International Olympic Committee over the sizable costs related to postponing the 2020 Summer Olympics. In short, Japan is still on the hook for the majority of the expenses. Zooming out, this is a reminder of the great power and leverage of the IOC as a non-state actor, one who can bully host and member nations in a way that state-actors seldom can. The Games will of course go on, but the question here is one of precedent: as populations grow increasingly resistant to the high costs and questionable returns on Olympic bidding and hosting, the fallout from Tokyo’s final bill will surely inform future debates and may lead to future hosts demanding increased support and contingency plans from the most powerful governing body in the world.
On the other side of the globe, the New York Times Tariq Panja writes that the English Premier League has become the latest proxy in the Saudi Arabia-Qatar dispute. At issue: Qatari broadcaster beIN’s legitimate accusations that Saudi backed Arabsat has been behind a massive piracy scheme. As Panja writes, “The two wealthy countries are locked in a range of political and economic disputes, stoking tension in the Middle East. Relations soured between them in 2017 when Saudi Arabia led a regional boycott of Qatar, accusing the gas-rich emirate of a supporting terrorism and criticizing its friendly relationship with Iran.” More on that here. Further at issue and ostensibly related: a Saudi takeover of Premiership club Newcastle. The conflict intertwines matters of both economic and soft-power, in a textbook case of how states use sports to further their agendas. Both nations have prioritized sport as means to diversify their finances and gain regional and global footholds as they jockey for power and influence.
While we’re on the subject, if you’re looking for things to read while we wait for the return of competition, I have written extensively on this subject for the geopolitical forecasting firm Stratfor. The archive can be found here.
The role and place of Canadian teams in “American” pro sports is a quirk that doesn’t normally get much attention, save the playing of “O Canada” when one of the 12 Canadian professional franchises crosses the border to compete in the lower 48. Now, as leagues look to re-open, there’s a potential conflict looming, as Canada has banned sports events through August at the earliest. The New York Times, whose sports section has been great during the pandemic, details the implications.
While there is still much room for growth and improvement, high level women’s sports have been steadily gaining financial ground and increased visibility in recent years, especially in North America and Europe. This is good. However, many of these gains have been made on good faith investments, in the anticipation that elite women’s sport will eventually be financially viable as a stand alone produce (this is not my critique of women’s sports, but the reality of an entrenched system that yes, favors men’s sports.) The current global crisis threatens to erase many of these gains, with potentially crippling downstream effects for women’s sport worldwide. This is perhaps best highlighted in this timely report from FIFPRO, the international soccer player’s union.
There are still some non-pandemic sports things happening, as NFL fans were reminded of with the not-too-surprising return of Rob Gronkowski, who’ll be joining Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. It’s nearly impossible to question the football decision making of Bill Belichick, but this will eventually be part of a good case study on how great teams begin to unravel. But for now, it just reminds me of one my favorite sports related tweets of all time:
Inspired by yet another good article on the challenges of bringing sports back, I feel like we are in the midst of a utilitarian experiment that I’ll be teaching in my classes for years to come. Of the major ethical philosophies, utilitarianism is often the most immediately appealing: do what’s best for most, while minimizing the negative; the cost/benefit bookkeeping of the utilitarian worldview strikes most of us as realistic and reflective of our daily lives.
But the challenging aspect of the philosophy becomes clear when actually start trying to run the numbers: whose happiness matters the most? whose pain should we be considering? are all pleasures and pains created equal?
And this is where we find ourselves with the call for a speedy return of big-time sports for entertainment. Who will derive pleasure? Ostensibly, millions upon millions of sports fans. Who will suffer or bear the costs? A much smaller number of athletes. Assuming (and it’s a hell of an assumption) that we’ll have the testing capability to run some of these fanciful experiments, some are framing the only cost in terms of potential virus exposure. But is that all that the athletes will bear? A few: detachment from their families, living under intensely micro-managed supervision and surveillance, and mental health struggles. But does any of this resonate with the average fan?
We tend not to think of pro athletes as normal people. They are certainly extraordinary at what they do, but our characterization goes far beyond their exceptional abilities. We want them to play “for the love of the game” and we are quick to remind them that they make crazy money “just to play a game.” Is this fair? Do their salaries and capacity to make our lives better justify a return to play? Are their multi-million dollar contracts predicated on the assumption that they keep playing, no matter how much the conditions have changed? In non-pandemic times, we remind athletes caught in the public eye that they knew “what they were signing up for.” I’m not sure that we can trot that argument out at the moment. And while I know that many are itching to return to the field or court, I have to imagine that there are also many living in fear and anxiety of rushing things just because the games must go on.
As we begin to the experiments to re-open society and brings sports (and other things) back, we must remember that an ethically sound utilitarian perspective doesn’t just favor majority rule, but considers the true balance of pleasure/pain with as much nuance, compassion, and respect for individual well-being as possible.
While it appears that we’re on the cusp of easing some pandemic restrictions, I imagine that most folks will still have plenty of time to pass in relative isolation. My suggestion: put down the phones and read Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home and Asher Price’s Earl Campbell:Yards After Contact. I won’t bury the lede: these are the two best books on sport history I’ve read in recent memory.
Like the best books about sports, they are about so much more; like the very best books about sports, they deliver the so much more without being patronizing or insistent, the stories speak for themselves. Both authors are journalists by trade, but they ably embrace the historians craft. Those of us who do “academic sport history” for a living are sure to be jealous, but I don’t hold that against them. Nusbaum explores the pre-history of Dodger Stadium, a saga that intertwines the Mexican-American immigrant experience, mid-century housing policy, and the Red Scare, amongst many other things. Price’s book is technically a biography of the legendary running back, but is as much the story of both the state and University of Texas coming to terms with their past and future in 1970s.
As we all try to forecast (likely incorrectly!) how our post-pandemic world will look, I find myself trying to think about the things that may be better post-Covid than they were before. One area of hope: youth sports. Namely, a return to community based, affordable offerings for the majority of our kids, rather than the increasingly expensive, elite-focused model that has come to dominate in recent years, with prices going up and broad-based participation going down.
I guess there are two perspectives that might lead to this revival. The optimistic position: the pandemic has forced to us look inward and evaluate what truly matters. As we spend more time at home with our kids, do we really miss spending half of our weekends driving to and from games that resemble micro-professional sports offerings? The pessimistic or cynical position: many high-priced offerings won’t survive the economic downturn, while families will have to tighten up on the discretionary spending that fuels youth sports. Perhaps we’ll see a combination of both factors.
To be clear, I’m not happy to potentially celebrate the very real economic challenges that families will face. Nor do I celebrate well-intentioned organizations going out of business. (On the other hand, I wont’ shed many tears for the youth sports grifters that have exploited this market: I’m looking at you, private coaches who prey on parents’ fears that 7-year old Jamie isn’t doing enough footwork drills or drinking enough kale shakes) But maybe, just maybe, when this is done, we’ll remember what makes youth sports great: camaraderie, community, and above all, fun for the kids and parents alike. Fingers crossed.
In short: we need way more testing and we need it now.
1. From journalist Patrick Hruby’s Hreal Talk newsletter, a very thorough and deep dive into the challenges of returning to play, featuring sport-focused epidemiologist Zachary Binney. Not the rosiest of outlooks, but a reality check for sure.