The NRL was postponed almost 24 hours after the last game of round two, where Blake Ferguson and Paramatta recorded a win. (AAP: Dave Hunt)
There are many reasons Australia missed the jump in the Coronavirus Stakes by six lengths and is now desperately trying to lengthen its stride and somehow catch up.
Our geographical isolation created a false sense of immunity; authorities failed to heed warnings from abroad and even those of their own experts; leaders blithely announced they were off to the footy compounding the “she’ll be right” attitude; the fake news era left many sceptical about the magnitude of the threat they faced.
And so the mistakes of this fatal period of self-denial were compounded.
But sport hasn’t helped.
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In fact, we have let you down.
I say “we” in this case because I include myself among those in the sports media who did not thump our pulpits hard enough about the sheer stupidity of continuing to play sport when this created a mixed message about the need for social isolation.
But on Sunday the cartoon anvil descended upon our collective heads and belatedly knocked some sense into us.
The sobering moment of realisation was not the AFL’s announcement the season had been suspended but the desultory sight of games continuing even as various governments effectively shut our world down.
As we learned restaurants and pubs, and in some states schools, would be closed and social isolation became an order enforceable by law, not merely a sensible request, it was not the impending absence of footy that was jarring.
It was the thought that for a couple of weeks we had played various games without fully grasping, or even wilfully ignoring, the threat we faced.
On Sunday morning on the ABC’s Offsiders, host Kelli Underwood asked my opinion about playing on while the virus spread.
I stammered an equivocal response about understanding the commercial imperatives of the leagues whose current operating model was imperilled while thinking the time had come to stop.
But later, watching picnickers tumbling over each other in parks and driving past pubs filled with revellers having “last drinks”, I felt annoyed, even humiliated, that I had failed to strongly emphasise that the continuation of sport was contributing to the life-threatening normalisation of society.
What I should have said: Those who understood the severity of the pandemic could not possibly be heartened by the sight of games continuing, and those who did not understand were being given false assurance.
Sport did not act alone in going on too long. If anything, it continued with a wink and a nod from authority rather than in defiance of it.
But also sport flatters itself that it can lead, inspire and motivate and even change.
Perhaps, a bit too often, it now does so for commercial benefit or to gain government grants rather than for altruistic motives.
But there is at least a sense our games are capable of providing something beyond mere entertainment and distraction; that they provide a greater public good.
This time, for a couple of deluded weeks, we got it badly wrong even if it was for the right reason — the survival of professional sport as we know it.
Sport is among the most expendable commodities in a time of crisis, which in turn makes it tempting to consider it unimportant.
Patently this is not true given the vast industry professional sports have created, but as importantly because of the emotional investment of those who follow them.
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Those two factors, protecting the industry and providing a welcome distraction for those entering a frightening time of social isolation, were used to justify the continuation of sport in Australia.
Yet, again, it was the imposition of the harshest isolation measures that made it obvious that, no matter how well-meaning the motives, sport was too slow to shut the gates for participants as well as fans; that the sight of footballers wrestling each other to the ground as leaders and public health officials were trying to raise awareness and enforce social distancing was absurdly counterintuitive.
The club warlords who had failed to future-proof the game failed to grasp that the reputational damage caused by defying public expectation could be as great as the financial damage caused by an overdue postponement.
Right up until its postponement the NRL’s ever-more desperate attempts to keep the game alive betrayed the mindset of a competition not merely in denial, but oblivious to the state of the world around it.
Meanwhile, the stuffed blazers of the International Olympic Committee merely confirmed their hard-won reputation for stubborn isolationism and self-interest by refusing to even countenance the idea of postponement.
There have been many unprecedented and life-changing events in the past few weeks but an organisation that has, among its many sins, tolerated the presence of despots and dopers again thumbing its nose at the rest of the world is among the least surprising.
But then, we have ourselves sent equivocal messages and watched games that almost certainly contributed to the dangerous impression life had not changed.
Much of Australian sport was too late to understand, too late to warn and, particularly, too late to act.
The best we can hope is that we learned the first lesson of what will no doubt be very many.
Sport can never again pretend to be played, literally or figuratively, in a protective bubble.