The spectre of COVID-19 and the universal, unforgiving, existential threat it poses has cast a shadow, long and dark, across everyday life, with sport a real part of this. 

As my colleague Matt Fletcher-Jones wrote a couple of months back, sport represents, for many of us, the very rhythm of life. And he’s right: from the reason behind that Monday morning angst, to aching for when Saturday comes again; the gym, the jog, the team training; the drive to after-school clubs and everything in between.

But it’s not just a question of how we deal without sport, it’s about how sport deals without us.

As one of the first institutions to lower its shutters at the onset of lockdown, the Premier League looked to lead by example, making space for life without sport, rather than sport without fans.

However, what really set this already unique moment apart for football was how, when the competition stopped, the competition stopped. Players, clubs and even broadcasters all came together like never before.

And the fans followed.

Because whilst they instinctively know that no one player is bigger than a club, COVID-19 has shown that no one club is bigger than the world around it. That though historic rivalry runs deep, humanity is the beating heart of a better future. That sometimes we need to cast off the shackles of enmity to achieve something greater than the sum of our parts.

The nation’s game as a collective positive influence in society – the ultimate common good – rather than the dysfunctional reality of the fabled football family.

That’s why Sky came down to Earth to grant the BBC national morale-boosting terrestrial live rights. That’s why clubs buried the social media hatchet from the start of the COVID-19 crisis. And that’s why players have come together like never before as allies in altruism and activism.

Although it might suit some, the standard narrative that Premier League players are overpaid egotists is incredibly reductive. Not only does meaningful community outreach run deep with many clubs, but the individual charitable foundations set up by players are known to benefit thousands in need, both on these shores, and over land and sea.

Nevertheless, the actions of players in this unique time has still managed to surprise many. To see some of the biggest names in the biggest league in world football stand up and be counted over the past few months has been incredibly positive. Black Lives Matter, social welfare and key worker funding are some of the heavyweight issues raised in not just words, but deeds from leading players, young and old.

Whether it’s Harry Kane providing Leyton Orient much needed financial security, Jordan Henderson galvanising the ‘Players Together’ fund for the NHS, or Marcus Rashford’s phenomenal – and successful – lobbying of Government to fight, as he so eloquently put it “the invisible issue of food insecurity”, players have demonstrated both empathy and a will to make things better.

Even the crowning glory of Patrick van Aanholt’s Twitter takedown of über-troll Katie Hopkins, following her bilious critique of Rashford’s campaign, was another brilliant example of football coming together in the interests of a more positive, progressive world.

From the raised fists of the Mexico ’68 to the bent knee of Colin Kaepernick, the concept of Athlete Activism is nothing new. Professional sport has a rich history of individuals willing to use their platform to highlight inequality and inequity, stimulate vital discussion and force fans and, by extension, society, to engage in their wider world, not just the sporting arena. It’s the collective nature of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sets it apart.

A colleague reminded me the other day of one of my favourite scenes in one of my favourite sporting documentaries, When We Were Kings. In it, journalist George Plimpton recalls the moment when Muhammad Ali spoke to 2,000 Harvard seniors at a commencement ceremony in 1975:

"He gave this wonderful speech about how he hadn't had the opportunity, but they had, and they should use that language, that learning that they had to go out and change the world and make it a better place. And it was moving and it was funny at the same time and there was a great roar of appreciation at the end of it. And then someone at the end of it shouted out 'Give us a poem!', and everybody quieted down."

Ali responded with what became the shortest poem in the English language: “Me. We.”

The spirit of solidarity and collectivism in the Ubuntu philosophy summarised in two words and three letters. Altruism. Activism. Alliance. Positive change to meet positive ends. Together. A better world for every person in it and on it.

Over the past few months, the c-word has acted as a prism for uncomfortable truths and a catalyst for unambiguous change. With the 2019/20 season restarted and football in full – fuller – flow, will this spirit of solidarity continue? Or will the traditional passion and partisanship of football fandom erode and undermine it?

Can players continue to act as allies for the very people their day job defines as adversaries, and can fans follow suit for the greater good? If so, how?

The answer might be held in another c-word: collectivism. If football continues to ‘come together’, could what happens off the pitch matter more than what happens on it?

Let’s hope so.

Share on linkedin
Share on twitter


Start typing and press Enter to search