France is preparing to ease its lockdown from next week, re-opening some schools, public transport and public libraries. Social gatherings up to a maximum of 10 people will be allowed, and small shops can trade again.

Social distancing in the Premier League?

Gyms and indoor sports pitches will remain closed, and all contact sports and team sports remain forbidden until further notice. But some sports will be freed up, provided that they are practised outdoors and kept compatible with social distancing. Individual exercisers (joggers, cyclists, hikers) are directed to keep at a distance of 10 metres from each other; in sports like tennis, and in yoga or communal fitness sessions, there must be at least four square metres “per person”. 

These rules appear fraught with complexities. Will a tennis doubles game comply? Will pétanque? In the nature of French political culture, it’s likely that individual local authorities will make their own interpretations. What seems beyond doubt, however, is that France’s professional sporting elite are not going to be offered any more of a liberal regime than the general population. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe declared last week that the 2019-20 sporting season, including the French football league, is over, and that no pro sports would resume until September at the earliest.

Contrast that policy with the manoeuvrings in Britain. No significant relaxation of the general lockdown has, at the time of writing, been announced here, and government ministers have been taking umbrage at the news media even questioning a timetable towards it. Yet Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told a parliamentary session over a week ago: “I personally have been in talks with the Premier League with a view to getting football up and running as soon as possible in order to support the whole football community”.

Later in the week he hosted a virtual meeting involving medical experts from several sports organisations, government and Public Health England, about “stepping up planning” for the return of elite sport. The idea being floated from government circles, according to a BBC report, was that resumption of some mainstream sport, even if contested behind closed doors, would “provide many people with a much-needed boost to morale after months of lockdown”. And several Premier League clubs have reacted to this apparent encouragement by pulling their players back to their training grounds, priming them for early return to the fray, albeit with earnest assurances that social distancing was being fully maintained.

With money no object – or, alternatively, with money as the supreme object – all sorts of extraordinary proposals have flooded across the media for ways of protecting millionaire football celebs and their global game from the pandemic conditions that engulf all other human activities. All Premier League squad players could be tested, and re-tested (again and again) for the coronavirus; they could be quarantined together in a neutral region to play out the season, maybe in some country minimally infected. They could all wear masks, they could avoid breathing on each other. 

These are laugh-out-loud absurdities. Can you imagine a masked Virgil van Dijk keeping his social distance from a forward bearing down on the Liverpool goal? Only in your dreams. Nevertheless, it is not so absurd to question how far and how long social distancing should be enforced between demonstrably healthy young athletes, for whom the likely physical consequences to themselves of contracting Covid-19 are hardly severe.

Sport is not just a circus for professional players to perform on tightropes

Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, Spain’s equivalent of the Premier League, said after the announcement in France: “I do not understand why there would more danger in playing football behind closed doors, with all precautionary measures, than working on an assembly line, being on a fishing boat on the high seas, etc.” 

That’s one way of looking at it. But sport is not just a circus for professional players to perform on tightropes for the passive entertainment of a mass audience, whatever contribution that may make for the economic good. Ordinary citizens at all stages of life and at all levels of ability regard their own participation in sport as part of life’s health-enhancing bread-and-butter. And many social forms of it – golf, tennis, bowls, as well as individual exercise-taking – could be indulged here at a modest distance, as is proposed in France, without significant risk of increasing contagion.

The Roman satirist Juvenal described a contemporary state policy of controlling its citizens by offering them “bread and circuses”. If it comes down to a choice between them right now, I hope that our Secretary for Culture and Sport will opt for bread. Some of us have had enough of the virtual bloody circus.

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