COVID-19, social distancing and the experience of sport

Social behavior is going to imbibe sweeping normative changes, driven by trauma of the sheer contagiousness of COVID-19, the pandemic of this century.

Home advantage no more? The lack of the familiar atmospheric buzz can play undesirable tricks on the fortunes of a sport.   -  AFP

As the world struggles to cope with the disruptions caused by COVID-19, sport is crawling its way back with a promise of tranquility in these times of anxiety. Last month, South Korea put to execution a blueprint that has been in discussion ever since lockdowns became the norm across the world. A fresh season of the domestic baseball league commenced in stadiums with empty seats, with strict health safety rules to be observed by players and officials allowed at the venue.

Bundesliga has now followed suit, resuming its 2019-20 season after a two-month forced pause. Besides the no-audience policy, safety rules in effect demand strict behavioral changes from the players on the pitch, such as no spitting on the ground and avoidance of unnecessary contact, the most demanding of which was the prohibition on handshakes or embraces between players in celebration; an exception was made for congratulating gestures through elbowing one another. The return of sport, even if only through televised broadcasts and web streams, would bring delight to fans starved of action, but it also had bewilderment in store for them.

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As Erling Braut Haaland netted the first goal in Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 rout of Schalke at home, it was indeed unsettling, yet retrospectively hilarious, to see him rushing beyond the goal line, only to stop and turn as if he realized that there was no exuberant crowd to address with his intended theatrics. He wanted to break into a wild dance with his teammates – which the brilliance of the two-pass set-up immensely deserved, only to be awkwardly diluted down to a sloth-like jig. Reality had struck.


A new normal - socially distant celebrations   -  AP


Not everywhere though. Hertha Berlin players were caught on the wrong foot (or, shall one say – cheek?) as old habits were proved to die hard. Dedryck Boyata allegedly kissed Marko Grujic on the cheek after Hertha’s first goal against TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, while the team hardly adhered to the social distancing playbook in their celebrations after completing the 3-0 win. The authorities have excused the incident, recognizing that physical displays of emotion have been integral to the sport.


Dedryck Boyata appeared to plant a kiss on the cheek of Hertha Berlin team-mate Marko Grujic during their game against Hoffenheim. The act seemed incongruous considering mask-wearing substitutes were sitting significant distances apart from one another along the sidelines.   -  Getty Images


As the teams were gearing up for Bundesliga, a professor at the German Sports University in Cologne, Wilhelm Bloch, had expressed concerns that contracting SARS-CoV-2 could potentially end players’ careers, should things go wrong. Time will tell us whether the resumption of contact sports was prudent in this climate. But it would not be an unreasonable projection for the near future, even if a vaccine or cure were to be invented tomorrow, that social behavior is going to imbibe sweeping normative changes, driven by trauma of the sheer contagiousness of the pandemic of this century. What would it mean for the experience of sport?

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There were other, hitherto unimaginable, aspects of the game-watching experience that stood out, especially for top-flight international football. Borussia toyed with Schalke in the Revierderby, and in normal circumstances, that would send a home crowd into a maddening frenzy, threatening to drown out the voices of broadcast commentators even. Instead, the spectator was alive to the crisp sounds of the ball making contact with players’ feet, something more becoming of street football in the neighborhood.

The lack of the familiar atmospheric buzz can play undesirable tricks on the fortunes of a sport. For example, the significance of home and away games can be practically turned to naught. A player may neither derive the pleasure of playing to nor feel the pressure of playing against the crowd, which has remained a key element in the psychology of motivation in sport, no matter how professional it may have become today. Even if spectators are eventually phased back into stadiums, there are foreseeable doubts in recovering the spontaneity of audience camaraderie in an era adopting physical distancing in public places as the new normal.


Not everyone is complaining though.   -  Getty Images


This could hurt the prospects of a sport with ambitions of global expansion, such as cricket. Optics matter. One reason why T20 cricket leagues are seen as messiahs for the spread of the sport, as well as its revenue, is the package they deliver in terms of crowd engagement. Nothing succeeds like success itself, and a sport attracts more followers if it can represent itself as desirable, by appearing to command popular attention already. With the Indian Premier League, the richest cricket league in the world, set to play out the incumbent edition before empty stands, it does not bode well for the immediate future of the sport.

Not everyone is complaining, though. Ask Markus Hoffman, assistant manager of the Union Berlin team, who was at the helm of their affairs for the Bayern Munich encounter. All the players on the pitch could hear his instructions throughout the match, loud and clear, he said. The remote audience would certainly attest to that.

(Ratul Das is an assistant professor at Xavier Law School, St Xavier's University, Kolkata)

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