Sports, I do love them in all their forms. Be it football of any code, swimming, athletics etc I just can’t get enough. It used to be, when I was younger, simply due to partisan loyalties why I would keep up to date on all the stats in all the sports I could find, but as I got older I found that the thing I enjoyed the most about sports is how it mimics real life, how real world questions are viewed both within and without the sport and how the real world questions are answered.
These questions range in scope from political to racial to religious to labour to sexual to gender and everything else under the sun. how they are addressed may and often times do differ drastically from how they are addressed in the everyday society, but they are addressed and in doing so, with the actions taken, I think we get a glimpse into how broader society will be treated and more importantly, what actions (however modified) we can imitate to make our lives better.
Let us look at gender pay disparity, for example, an issue which in the ‘real world’ has long been contentious and which after decades of struggle still hasn’t been even remotely addressed. The old trope, which still finds life today, is that women either don’t put in enough effort as men (their jobs differ) or that the jobs they do have which are similar to men bring in less money to the company and as such they (the women) get less pay. This is an issue which naturally has afflicted sports, where the prize money in Tennis, Football and even Athletics remains a fraction of what the men get.
The response by the women over the years has been earth-shattering, we were gifted with the battle of the sexes in tennis, an act which put to rest the myth that women are inferior to men on the field of play. Then we were witness to the Williams sisters (and Sharapova) demanding an increase or not playing, and an increase in prize money they did see as the governing body quickly realised (at least back then early 2000’s) that women’s tennis was the only competitive game in town and losing them would mean haemorrhaging sponsorship money.
However, the greatest salvo shot by women athletes must be those shot by the women footballers in both Norway and the US. Both teams represent countries where the men’s team has, and remains, been held in higher esteem than their female counterparts. This is understandable given the world we live in, as a natural result the teams have been drastically underpaid when compared to their male counterparts. It gets interesting when one realises that the Norway women’s team continually outperforms the men’s, while the USWNT is a behemoth which looms over women’s football (record world cup wins) while their male counterparts barely make up numbers in international competitions anymore (see recent gold cup and world cup debacles).
These women have said in no uncertain terms that they will not play nice until they get their monies worth, refusing to play a world cup qualifier (Norway had to field their kids) and the USWNT while they do play continue to publicly lampoon the governing body and up to the outbreak of COVID-19, they were in talks to have a massive wage increase.
Racism is an issue which in the real world has never gone away and which sports like to kid itself that is immune from. it is not, and the past few years have shown that the sporting bodies have a real issue in handling the racist acts which come from the stands and on the field. We have seen this most starkly in football (association,) where in Europe racist acts have hit heights not seen since the bad old days of the ’70-’80s. Local governing bodies and the international governing body have dealt with the issue half-heartedly, stating that while they are against it they can’t control society, impose meagre fines and implore fans and players to show respect (mirroring society/real world in its response).
The response of the abused players has been epic. We have witnessed walk offs, players directly confronting their abusers, teams collectively refusing to play and the sufferer of the abuse scoring and cheering (mocking) their abusers. What we have also seen is some players saying that until issues are addressed in country X then they will not go there, either with their club or their country. Players have even threatened to forfeit matches where these actions take place, accepting any point deduction, fine or competition expulsion which may come along. These acts, while not ending the racist actions taking place, have forced the owners of clubs and governing bodies to come to terms with their lack of action and sees them now (however half-heartedly) making moves to ensure that actions in the stadium are monitored, the abusers punished and that incidents of these type don’t happen in the ground at all.
The labour issue is one which has never left sports, even if it has in modern times shrunk to the background. As professional athletes have gotten stupendously wealthy, abandoning us in the real world, we tend to forget that they too are workers (labourers) but every now and then a dispute crops up which not only reminds us that yes they are workers, but that their issues mirror our issues, only masked by a gilded cage.
Two examples highlight the labour issues currently facing sports stars and athletes in general. The first is the fact that the clubs are going broke as no football is being played, as such, clubs and leagues as disparate as Barcelona, Juventus, Tottenham and the RSPL have all slashed wages for playing and non-playing staff by up to 70% (50% in the case of the Red Stripe Premier League, while Spurs have furloughed their non-playing staff). While many top-flight players can stomach this and view it as noble, others have been none too pleased and have refused to entertain the thought, asking why they need to take a pay cut when some of these clubs are not in the red but are merely seeing a shrinking of their uber profits. They are asking, why should they, the worker, take a pay cut when the owners of the club are the ones who are invariably getting bailed out by their states? Alex Song being one of those who refused the pay cut was fired by his club FC Sion, he is taking them to CAS on the grounds of unfair dismissal/termination of contract.
The second issue faced these sportsmen is when and how will they go back to work. This is not a trifling question, leagues such as the Premier League rake in billions in revenue, and the longer that a ball is not kicked is the longer that money is lost (and lest we forget all football clubs are businesses). Some leagues such as the EPL are seriously considering the recently floated idea of isolating all 20 clubs and have them play behind closed doors back to back. This would, in theory, take place at St Georges Park (English FA high-performance complex) where they have many pitches available. This idea is a nonstarter, the players will not accept it, the logistics would be insane (quarantining the thousands of playing and non-playing staff including media members to get the show on the road) and again in case I forgot to mention, the players will not accept being separated from their families for a period of 3 months as is being proposed (see the ruckus kicked up during world cups and international continental competitions). While the PFA have not yet made a statement, it should be noted that journalists close to many important players are already poopooing the idea.
These are just a few of the issues which sportsmen and women have to grapple with and were it not for the large sums of money or fame, we would always relate wholeheartedly with these stories. These issues they face today are the same issues people who work in the call centre or restaurant industry face, maybe not in an exact and paint by numbers fashion but we see them and at the risk of being a broken record, we can learn from their situations, learn from their actions and use them, however altered in the ‘real world’.
Women in the ‘real world’ can learn from the women in the sporting field, the Black race in the ‘real world’ can learn from the Black men and women in the sports world, the everyday worker can take a page from the worker struggles which the elite but still worker athlete have fought and won. In no other sphere has the individual worker, who intrinsically understands that it is their labour and being which creates the profit, wrested enough control from the owners to make them perpetually frightened and concede continually. We can’t and shouldn’t carbon copy the actions taken by the athletes but just as sports mimics society maybe we can mimic the actions taken by the players on the field.