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Should we look to sports for role models in the time of the Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter?

Photo by Vienna Reyes, Unsplash.

Last year, I wrote an article exploring whether or not we should look to athletes as role models.

A lot can change in the space of a year and the sports world has been drastically altered world-wide due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protest.

Firstly, with the Coronavirus, March proved to be a devastating month for sports world-wide. The Royal Spanish Football Federation (Real Federación Española de Fútbol in Spanish) along with the top-league soccer tournament La Ligua said together in March that Spanish football across all levels would “be put on hold indefinitely” until “the government and health authorities consider it opportune and without risk”

The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will instead become the 2021 olympics, with travel and the safety of the players, coaches, officials and crowd still at risk.

In America, the NBA (National Basketball Association) season was put on hold and the MLB (Major League Baseball) season was delayed.

While here in Australia the AFLW (AFL Women’s) season was cut straight to finals and then, after one weekend of finals footy, cut short all-together. No premier team. The NRL (National Rugby League) and AFL (Australian Rules Football) men’s competitions wouldn’t see action between March and June.

There’s since been inventive and inspiring ways sporting codes and their athletes have coped with Covid-19. The New Zealand Warriors, for example, faced an inevitable situation: either stay in Auckland and not participate in the NRL this season or stay in Australia for who knows how long as both Australia and New Zealand closed their borders to international travel. They elected to stay in Australia, saving their season and undoubtedly the NRL some headaches of rescheduling around a competition with an odd-number of teams. An article written by Corey Rosser of mentioned a quote from Cameron George, the CEO of the New Zealand Warriors. Mr George is quoted as saying “I can’t emphasise enough the resilience this group are showing... I think the Rugby League fraternity in New Zealand and Australia should be very proud”.

One cannot deny the truth behind Mr George’s comments, that the Warriors have sacrificed and are continuing to sacrifice a lot for the sake of Rugby League. Similarly, one cannot deny the sacrifice made by teams in the AFL who are either currently or will be moving into hubs around the country. Far away from their loved ones, all for the sake of the competition, allowing for the AFL to navigate the logistical nightmare of different states having different border closures/requirements.

It has also been great to see the creative ways leagues around the world have thought up of fan interaction in the age of the Coronavirus. The Korean Soccer team FC Seoul tried “placing sex dolls in its stands to add atmosphere”: according to a CNN article, they were fined for it.

Both the NRL and the AFL here in Australia have put cardboard cut out of fans at grounds, with the AFL having started broadcasting live feeds of fans watching and reacting to the game at home, and projecting it onto the advertisement boards around the ground.

Unfortunately, while it’s clear a lot of players around the world have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice a lot, it has to be addressed that some athletes perhaps haven’t been taking this virus as seriously. It has cost their respective sports dearly.

Take Rudy Gobert, a player for the Utah Jazz in the NBA. He was “criticised for a prank he pulled on members of the media” where he “touched every microphone and recorder in front of him” in a press conference “in jest”. Though the same article pointed out that since that event Mr Gobert has “donated more than $500,000 (USD) to assist people affected by the virus and related closures”, the league was forced to hit the pause button after news of his positive diagnosis filtered out just two days later on March 11th.

Or take Novak Djokovich, tennis superstar and current world number 1. After he organised a tournament tour of Croatia and Serbia called the Adria Tour, it has been revealed that he has caught the virus. According to the ABC, “during the tournament Djokovic received criticism for the lack of social distancing by players throughout the event” with instances of players “hugging and huddling together for photos”. On top of that, “players and staff did not wear masks throughout the event”. And now, big names in the tennis world associated with that event including up and coming superstar Alexander Zverev have caught this virus.

There’s been many instances of AFL and NRL players breaking social distancing guidelines, including a group of 16 Adelaide Crows players and an assistant coach, Ben Hart, were suspended for a month and a half back in early May for breaking not only AFL guidelines but police orders.

In times like this, it feels almost natural as a sports enthusiast to turn to athletes for guidance about how to maintain social distancing in the time of Coronavirus. But it seems like there are far too many instances of athletes not taking this virus seriously, while the rest of society is forced to socially-distance.

Although, if the Coronavirus is proving that some athletes might not be the best role models for social-distancing, the Black Lives Matter movement is proving that athletes can still be good role models for others in 2020.

Photo by Chris Henry, Unsplash.

The Black Lives Matter movement started in America, in light of George Floyd's death due. The movement started over police brutality towards African-Americans and has since spread around the world, also spreading awareness about racism against Indigenous Australians and Papuans.

Athletes around the world are taking a knee in solidarity with the black lives matter movement. Notable leagues where players are adopting this stance include the Premier League in the UK, as reported by Reuters and the AFL. Leagues themselves are also taking a stand against racism. Indeed, the AFL are seemingly learning from their past mistakes with regards to the Adam Goodes controversy. The league in 2019 apologised for not acting strongly enough on the matter of Goodes, a superstar for the Sydney Swans, being booed into retirement in 2015. In a statement released in 2019, the AFL said “Adam, who represents so much that is good and unique about our game, was subject to treatment that drove him from football. The game did not do enough to stand with him and call it out”.

Formula 1, also known as F1, is another example of professional sport stars taking a knee in protest.

Though, not all athletes are on the same page in regards to the protests and the resulting change in the sporting world. Take for instance Ray Ciccarelli, a racecar driver. Nascar, in light of the BLM protests, banned the confederate flag from being flown at events. Ciccarelli wasn’t happy, reportedly, according to 7news, saying “I could care less about the Confederate Flag but there are ppl that do and it doesn’t make them racist all you are doing is f-cking one group to cater to another”, before saying he’s leaving the sport “if this is the direction Nascar is headed”.

And examples of athletes doing the wrong thing are everywhere in sports, including the recent charge of indecent assault against Collingwood Magpie Jordan De Goey this past week, or, to take a perhaps more well known example, Lance Armstrong, who in 2013 finally admitted to cheating in winning his 7 Tour de France titles.

And yet, plenty of examples exist to the fact that athletes are good role models. Take Patty Mills, an Aussie playing for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. According to the ABC, “the veteran Australian point guard said he had been encouraged by the public response to the Black Lives Matter movement since the police- arrest death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May”. According to the article, he is set to donate his entire salary “from the upcoming NBA restart to social justice causes in Australia”.

Last year, I wrote that we should look to sports for role models “as long as we put time into looking and finding the ones that are” good role models.

And yet, perhaps in the time of the Coronavirus Pandemic and BLM , maybe it’s instead time to truly reflect why we either agree or disagree with the actions an athlete, sporting club or sporting league takes.

Why do we applaud Patty Mills but roll our eyes at Rudy Gobert? Because, only when we allow such actions that others are taking to act as a catalyst for self-reflection will true, beneficial change take place.


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