COVID-19 Pandemic: The Social Responsibility of Athletes

By Andreas Themistocleous, APC Sports Consulting, Nicosia, Cyprus

I saw a very cool picture, about a week ago, on my social media feed from soccer star Neymar playing beach soccer with his friend on a private location by the sea in Brazil, telling the world how much fun it is to be back home and how his time is being usefully utilised during his social distancing, due to the Pandemic COVID-19.

But what is social distancing? People are dying, others are losing jobs, Europe is one big complete lockdown, especially in France where Neymar resides and plays. Not so cool I thought, after all, especially for the French people who idolise him.

We have repeatedly discussed how athletes are global icons and people weigh in on their lives, their actions and their opinions in an unprecedented manner, perhaps putting more trust and value in athletes than politicians themselves. There is a distinct association, which has been widely exploited commercially and has been the key success factor for the financial growth of all stakeholders in the sports industry. At any given time, let alone at a time of global crisis, athletes’ voices and attitudes matter and either add to or detract from the value of their brands.

Thus, Social Responsibility, at times such as the present, becomes an even greater necessity. It can be manifested in several ways, either as a product of personal initiative or as part of a wider campaign. It goes without saying that monetary returns should not be a top priority at this time for any athletes’ involvement in such activities.

I, personally, like what Ronaldo is doing on this subject. His private life is protected, he is in quarantine with his mother in Portugal and has pledged humanitarian aid in several shapes or forms, including utilisation of his hotels as accommodation for doctors who must isolate themselves from their families.

I also like what NBA ‘stars’ are doing, offering personal money to cover lost wages of the employees at arenas around the USA.

I also admire Steph Curry, who enrolled in e-learning classes at the University of Southern California, making sure that he stays at home and making good use of the time he has away from his sporting duties. This is what you call leading by example. This is socially responsible behaviour that sets the example and shows the way.

If elite athletes have not already done so, there are several simple things that they can do to join the cause of social responsibility during the Pandemic.

For starters, the one most critical function of social responsibility is to practise what you preach. So athletes should follow the rules, respect governmental orders and decisions and exhibit their obedience in a way that eases compliance amongst the general public.

For example, the USA had in the first two weeks of exposure to the virus surpassed the amount of infected people that China experienced in the last three months. What better way  for athletes to voice their suggestion to the public to practise social isolation, by also doing it themselves?

Another great example is blood donation. People, most probably out of fear of catching the virus, have stayed away from medical facilities and the blood reserves have been driven down to a dangerous level. Why not find a way to donate blood or encourage others to do the same and help people that really need it?

Also, in this time of crisis, old people seem to be the vulnerable and are asked to stay inside their houses. How about organising a grocery service, especially dedicated to older people and the most vulnerable? Perhaps athletes can do this with the help of the local authorities and, of course, a donation towards the actual service would be truly appreciated.

One of the biggest problems that the world is facing right now is domestic violence, which has abruptly multiplied due to social isolation and pressure from dealing with the enormous change in the ways of everyday life. Can sports figures raise awareness of the matter? Do athletes think that it is important for someone to come forward and push for action? Of course, for starters, they should probably check to make sure that they are playing by the book, respecting and empowering women by themselves.

Furthermore, no one should underestimate the psychological effects that this prolonged crisis and isolation will have on people. Mental health has been a prominent issue of discussion, for some time now, amongst professional leagues and people who support and sympathise with professional athletes in their quest to deal with those psychological challenges; now is the time for athletes to reciprocate and bring forward for social discussion the issue of psychological support for the isolated masses.

Last but not least, the Pandemic is seriously upsetting the economy and the financial well-being of everyday people and small businesses. The sports industry should be prepared to support communities and vulnerable groups, just like NBA ‘stars’ have done for arena workers.

One could go on and on suggesting and discussing ideas and measures of social responsibility related to the present state of affairs. It is truly a defining moment in world history and those, who can, should play their part in helping in whatever way may be possible.

One should remember that those who lead the way are the ones who usually get rewarded at some later point in life. It resembles an open-ended cycle: where the responsible ones lead the way, they are rewarded, they rise as leaders, they gain recognition, then it is easy for them to be more responsible and the cycle starts all over again and keeps going.

Socially responsible athletes are usually more popular amongst the fans, making them highly recruited by commercial brands. Socially responsible athletes, however, should not embark on the journey solely for their own personal benefits, but because they grasp the benefits for the overall good and for the general public. The personal benefits will be there for them regardless.

So, athletes should focus on what they can do to improve the lives of those who so constantly support and follow them.

Surely, it is now pay-back time and, hopefully, elite athletes are recognising this and stepping up to the plate!

Andreas Themistocleous may be contacted by e-mail at ‘andreas.themistocleous@apc-sport.com’