Back in January, the UK entered its third coronavirus lockdown in response to the discovery of a new strain beginning to infect growing numbers of people. Just about the entire country was ordered to stay indoors with the exception of one outdoor activity per day. 'Just about' is the key operating phrase. Why? Because there was one entity not affected by the lockdown mandate: professional football.
Europe's football clubs lost billions in 2020. The Premier League suffered its share of financial losses, but it managed to keep things afloat by extending its 2019-2020 season and starting the 2020/2021 season a little late than usual in September. The lower strata of the football pyramid did not fare so well.
Even so, is it appropriate to continue playing football while so much of life is still shut down? Some would argue yes, given the fact that professional sport offers some much-needed relief from what is becoming overwhelming pandemic stress. Fans need their favourite teams, like Manchester City, to give them something to look forward to. They need the positivity that comes with following professional sport.
Teams Struggling to Play
It is clear that the ongoing and relentless pandemic is making it difficult for teams for a variety of reasons. Many teams have found themselves inundated with injuries brought on by the relentless schedule. Many teams have played, almost constantly since the beginning of the season, twice a week. The combination of missing players and an exceptionally tight schedule has resulted in some serious player fatigue.
Of course, there are financial struggles as well. Teams like Man City can get by with limited ticket sales because merchandising and TV revenues make up a large slice of the revenue pie. Most Premier League teams are in the same position. But in the lower leagues, how many teams are on the verge of total financial collapse?
It has been suggested that the Premier League has the financial resources to keep the lower leagues afloat until the post-pandemic world returns to normal. Perhaps this is true through the rest of this season. But if pandemic restrictions are still in place for the start of the 2021-2022 season, even the Premier League won't have enough money to keep football going across the UK.
Safety Is Always a Concern
We must give football teams the benefit of the doubt that player and fan safety is their number one priority. Safety is always a concern when you are dealing with things like coronavirus. People in decision-making positions have to weigh the risks of continuing to play against those of stopping. And yes, there are health risks that come with shutting down.
Unfortunately, navigating something like a global pandemic is not as easy as making sure your team has a sports emergency first aid kit on hand. It is not as easy as bandaging a leg or giving a player some much-needed rest after pulling a muscle.
The problem with something like coronavirus is that there are too many unknowns. We still don't know how easily the virus spreads among asymptomatic people. We still don't know if the vaccines now being distributed worldwide will prevent the same type of scenario we have with the flu virus: new variants popping up with the start of every new season.
Because there is so much we do not know, it is hard to truly know whether or not playing football is dangerous. We just don't have enough data to understand the medical implications of a full Premier League season with fans in the stands.
Erring on the Side of Caution
There are some suggesting that all professional sports be shut down again until we know for sure. As the thinking goes, any willingness to err should be a willingness to err on the side of caution. That makes complete sense if your view of coronavirus is limited strictly to direct spreading from person-to-person. But if your scope is broad enough to also consider the psychological and economic impact of lockdowns, shutting everything down doesn't seem like such an easy choice.
It is no secret that coronavirus has a survival rate in excess of 98%. The vast majority of those who contract the virus will fully recover without any extreme symptoms. That said, is it worth billions of pounds in economic damage to guarantee that no one ever gets sick?
Imagine all of the jobs that would be lost if football were shut down for any length of time. How many thousands of jobs would be affected just in the Premier League alone? Then there are all the jobs associated with the lower leagues. And that's not all. There are literally thousands of tertiary companies that exist only because professional football exists. Shutting down football would mean shutting down those businesses and firing the people they employ.
Never forget that economic stress comes with its own medical consequences. Science has proven that stress can lead to all sorts of medical issues ranging from heart disease to mental illness. Do we take the risk of inflicting some other type of harm on people just to save them from being exposed to coronavirus?
A Small Slice of Normalcy
The point of this post is not to take a side one way or another. There are legitimate cases for both shutting down football and continuing to play. From a purely observational standpoint, however, professional football offers us a small slice of normalcy in a world that is far from normal.
We would all love to see coronavirus magically disappear. We would love to see life return to what we used to know prior to last spring. Yet neither scenario is going to happen. So instead, we have to make do the best we can. For some football fans, being able to follow their favourite teams through the remainder of the 2020/2021 season is a big part of making the best of the situation.
So far, continuing to play has not proved devastating. Until it does, is there any real reason to justify not playing? That's up to the government, the leagues, and the teams. But let's be clear about one thing: there are plenty of Manchester City fans who desperately want matches to continue unabated. There is a title to be won.