A lot of attention is currently being paid to national league sport – this is important, as it is the quickest and easiest way to return sports to the masses. At a time where the networks are running out of content to show, fans have been eagerly re-watching old matches, such as last year’s climatic Ashes showdown. Restarting top-tier sport is an easy and relatively safe way to fill up TV schedules – but the impact of sport goes far beyond what can be watched on a TV screen.
At a grassroots level, sport provides community. For younger team members, these teams offer a first chance to play with the adults. The older players are amateurs, their dreams of playing Premier League football or a Test at Old Headingley long gone, but they play every weekend anyway. This is not only from love of the sport: the social side of things – the pint after a game, even if it is still technically the morning, is just as important as the match itself. With the cancellation of all organised sport across the country, the grassroots level is fairly low down the list of priorities – it will be far easier to restore top level sport – but it is important that these communities are restored as quickly as possible.
The first weekends of May are usually the beginning of the cricket season. This means training sessions, colts nights, matches and pub trips after. These first games are a chance to catch up with teammates that you don’t see over the winter – hearing about weddings, new jobs and university plans, and speculating about which member of the team is pregnant this year. These teams provide a lot of structure in the lives of their players: in the return to normalcy, community sport should not be forgotten.
In fact, it should be actively promoted. Not only because sport is good for you, and healthy people are more likely to overcome the virus, but also because it will help to reduce the feelings of atomisation that isolation and social distancing are causing. As we rush to reduce human contact in everyday life as much as possible, it is important to remember that social interaction is an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Social health is an integral part of overall wellbeing: local organised sport could well play a huge role in combating loneliness and improving mental health as we emerge from the crisis. It’s worrying that it isn’t being more widely discussed, especially given the prominent role that it plays in so many people’s lives.
This isn’t just a problem for the government and national bodies: sport across the University has also been crippled by the pandemic. The Student Union, advocating for as normal a return as possible in Michaelmas ought not to forget the vital role that sport plays in the lives of many students, helping to alleviate the stress of an Oxford workload. The pandemic has meant that training, matches, tours abroad have all had to be postponed or cancelled – for many student athletes, playing a Varsity match would be the highlight of their university experience. For others, cuppers and college sport offered a fun way to relax, and a distraction from work – students will struggle without outlets like sport.
It is vitally important, as the University figures out the best course of action, that the focus isn’t just on the academic, which, while important, is only one of many aspects of university life. When Michaelmas rolls around, many will be eager to get back into the swing of a typical Oxford term as much as possible, and reinstating sport, at college and university level, will for many be a sign that things are returning to normal.
So while we wait for professional athletes to start doing what they do best again: hitting things with wooden sticks, running around a bit, catching and throwing and kicking, we shouldn’t forget that lots of people like to play sport, even if they aren’t very good at it. That for a lot of people, sport brings structure and social interaction – it makes them happy. And that, although it is great to sit in the pub watching the test match, it’s much better when you’ve just played a T20.