LAST week in Melbourne, a record 86,000 attended the women’s T20 cricket World Cup final at the MCG.
Four days later and local authorities in Victoria listed an area within that stadium as one of 27 public exposure sites for the coronavirus in the state.
As that announcement was being made, the same public health and government officials were deciding whether to permit the opening race of the Formula 1 season in Melbourne’s Albert Park to go ahead with or without fans or not at all. In making this decision, the authorities were cognisant of the fact that in 2019 over 100,000 attended on race day and just shy of 325,000 over the event’s four days.
Major sporting events such as the Formula 1 in March and the Australian Open in January are a vital part of the state of Victoria’s visitor economy (tourism), which is valued at Aus$30billion per annum.
Moreover, and throughout the last week, the sport that dominates the city of Melbourne, AFL, started contingency planning for its ongoing women’s league and the start of its men’s competition on 19 March. An idea of the complexity of the logistics involved can be gleaned from the fact that the AFL men’s competition is the fourth-best attended sports league in the world.
This snapshot of one week in the sporting life of one city, illustrates the vivid impact of the coronavirus on organisation and finances of sport globally.
In the greater scheme of things — the priority being public health and the public exchequer — the impact of the virus on the scheduling of sport is of minimal consequence. This is something that even the relentlessly and ruthlessly commercial major league sports in the US have acknowledged, all of whom have either suspended or delayed their playing seasons, guided by their duty of care towards players and fans.
The precautionary and preventative role that sporting personalities and bodies can play in mitigating the spread and effects of the virus is important.
While government bodies can relay messages about personal responsibility — regular handwashing; avoid coughing/sneezing on others; avoid direct contact through handshaking, etc; in contrast, probably the most effective image this week on all of this was Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, berating fans from offering high fives at Anfield during the Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid.
Similarly, on an organisational level, sports bodies, given their deep community reach, are a very effective means of getting the message across on the coronavirus. On a practical level, the need to restrict attendance at sporting and other mass events is obvious.
As Ireland’s leading virologist (and die-hard Waterford hurling fan) Professor Ultan Power of Queen’s University, Belfast says, “the simple rule is — the virus spreads from person to person; the greater number of people in the one place, the higher the risk of transmission.”
It follows that the risk associated with the gathering of thousands of people in close proximity in Cheltenham under the current unstable conditions of virus spread in the UK, while not contrary to government advice, looks in retrospective difficult to justify.
In Ireland, the announcement of restrictions by the government on Thursday, and the immediate response by Irish sporting bodies — Basketball Ireland being ahead of the coronavirus curve that everyone now wants flattened — was as sensible as it was inevitable.
Typical of the response was that of the GAA and including the Camogie and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, who have decided to suspend all activity at club, county and educational levels until March 29.
The ban is, rightly, a blanket ban and is to include all games, training and team gatherings at all ages and all grades. At inter-county level, the ban encompasses “all collective training, collective gym sessions and collective team meetings,” throughout the period.
It has been reported that the GPA’s CEO Paul Flynn has emailed all current inter-county managers to emphasise the importance of strictly complying with the ban on collective training before March 29.
The GPA has also reiterated to members that if they ignore the ban and take part in some sort of collective activity, then no insurance cover will apply. There is an implication by the GPA, which rightly is protective of its members’ interests, that players might be pressurised to keep training during the period of suspension until the end of March.
THE consequences of an inter-county panel training during a period forbidden under GAA regulations (such as the off season), has resulted in counties losing home advantage for a league game or fines or reprimands.
Those sanctions are trivial compared to the legal and insurance ramifications that would face a county board or the venue that hosted the training if the coronavirus ban is breached and a player got sick or transmitted to another.
If the session was unauthorized by either the county board or the host venue, then the organiser, such as inter-county manager might be personally liable.
Put simply, whomever is ultimately responsible for directing a breach of the ban during the prohibited period might well be deemed negligent towards the welfare of the players, support staff and others directly affected by any sickness (or injury) that might arise.
The specific risk associated with the virus cannot as of now be quantified and thus is uninsurable.
While the risk cannot be measured or insured against, neither can the irresponsibility of anyone who directs others to collectively train surreptitiously over the next two weeks or so.
Although the selfish, competitive bubble that is elite sport can sometimes rattle even the most rationale of beings, inter-county managers remain generally a responsible lot. In the unlikely event that one of their number does decide to go rogue, the plain language (and free legal) advice is: don’t; cop on; neither you nor the game is that important.
The profile of young, fit inter-county players is such that the threat of the virus to them is small but that it not the point. Inter-county players represent and, in GAA terms, are an integral part of their community. Sports organisations such as the GAA transmit through every aspect of Irish life in a way that we want to avoid with the virus.
GAA players, as with other sports, are role models on the field of play; as the GPA has stated they now, for the betterment of their communities, need to be allowed to be role models off the field and by not playing.
In the vernacular of the GAA, albeit in an entirely different context - the ban is back.
This time, the foreign body is not another sport but a virus. This time the ban is wholly justified. And this time it should be adhered to in full.
Jack Anderson is Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne.