“Bread and circuses” is a phrase many have heard attributed to the idle indulgences of the twenty-first century spectator, shifting effortlessly from one entertaining vignette to another with wilful abandon. It was coined in the second century, by Roman satirist Juvenal to deride a populace whose ignorance and neglect of wider duties was leading to an unhealthy state of civic affairs. As such, its utterance has now become synonymous with decadence.
Even as sport’s most ardent defender, one who would point to its ability to instill a community spirit around healthy exercise with an added exposure to competition, I cannot deny that the spectre of the ‘circus’ forever lurked. Moreover, since the return of professional sport in the post-Covid age, can anyone still maintain that the circus merely ‘lurks’ in 2020?
The brief postponement of sporting events during the lockdown showed that a significant number of men are incapable of restructuring their lives in the absence of some form of sporting consumption. The unplugging from the rhythmic trance of seasonal sport may have found a few men approaching their middle age wondering, ‘Have I really spent the last five years of my life arguing about who should be playing at left-back for Southampton?’
Indeed, the UK government were so keen to get the escapist show back on the road that even the foreign secretary Dominic Raab was publicly quoted in May saying that the return of Premier League football should happen ‘as soon as possible’ in order to ‘lift the spirits of the nation’. Almost half of the male responses in a YouGov poll agreed with him. There should be no illusion that Irish polling figures would be much different.
When the Premier League finally did return the following month, the Western world had by then exploded into a frenzy over the death of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement had instigated riots in central London culminating in the attempted burning of the Union Jack on the Cenotaph.
Despite this, the Premier League endorsed BLM to the extent that a ‘morale boosting’ return of football included having ‘Black Lives Matter’ plastered onto the back of each shirt and each sleeve, as well as a pantomime kneeling ceremony before every game. So it developed – a clap for carers gives way to a kneel for rioters; the millionaires on the field oblige; the mood is solemn to the point of farce. Andy from Barnsley must be loving it – except he is not.
The kneeling continued through and after the events of the Reading stabbings on the 20th of June, which finally tempered one northern England football goer to a show of defiance. In the end it was not an ‘Andy’ from Barnsley but rather a ‘Jake’ from Burnley. Jake Hepple’s stunt – the flying of a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner over the kneeling ceremony at the Etihad Stadium before the Manchester City-Burnley match on the 22nd of June – cemented what had been an abject failure of the Premier League to fulfil its role.
This was neither the morale boost those in office had called for, nor was it behaving in its role as ‘circus’ in the Juvenal sense. The escapism of sport was failing. Hepple was predictably dismissed from his job from a Lancashire welding company, with his girlfriend also being dismissed from her own work for her gall of associating with the man.
There has been little to no recognition from footballing regulatory or governing bodies of the level in which it has alienated and angered much of its key fanbase.
Over the past weekend, two events showed the public what has been lost from sport, and what has replaced it. The death of former footballer and Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton at the age of 85 symbolised the dying breath of the old working class’ place in the game.
Born into a coal-mining village from North East England and an ardent angler, Charlton embodied the grit and wit of the core working class that followed the game. The man who could be managing your nation at a World Cup could also find a home having a pint in your local social club.
This type of grounded man is now anathema to contemporary sport. The eulogies that pour in for him represent the dying embers of that generation, along with it the dying embers of the early 1990s Ireland he once represented.
Where we are now is the world where a 12-year-old boy gets arrested for tweeting some upsetting phrases to a multi-millionaire sportsman on Twitter. And the West Midlands Police proudly paraded their prize capture of the child to the mob on that same platform.
None of the above is uniquely occurring in association football. The monoculture is pervasive. Black sports personalities, whether they were born in Gabon or Gloucester, were mimicking stances and attitudes of African Americans they had seen online and on television. The kneeling is equally as prominent in cricket; in rugby the chant ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ is being examined for its appropriateness (someone somewhere has found a tangential link to slavery); in formula one Lewis Hamilton believes he is Malcolm X with a fast Mercedes.
A week before the ‘White Lives Matter’ banner fiasco, RTÉ devoted its GAA showcase show The Sunday Game to a deep discussion on racism in the game, plucking the handful of non-white figures the sport has to offer and plonking them on a couch to pull at the audience’s heart-strings. Pre-pandemic scheduling would have instead had viewers glued to the delightful reverie of a Cork-Tipperary hurling match at Semple Stadium.
So we are to ignore the fact that the association, An Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, was founded in 1884 specifically with the intention of preserving an Irish cultural outlet against the then-hegemonic global system of the British Empire, that it was a bulwark against the so-called ‘progress’ of the times. Instead, the ‘Gael’ must be removed from the Gaelic Games, and any honour one may have felt in having a sport uniquely Irish ought be replaced with the tired bland statement of blanket inclusivity.
The frenzied pace with which all of the above has taken place leaves the question – can sport recover its role as ‘circus’? There are three paths forward for the man who has over-indulged on its excesses in the past twenty years. The first, of course, is to double down on the escapism. If the panel shows are blasting out political agendas, there is always the alternative irreverent podcast, there is always the FanTV YouTube account.
The second alternative is the working class revolt, as performed by Hepple and co. This entails a rather futile effort to show your grievance against the direction of your local association – it is a path laid with many traps, culminating in a Tommy Robinson style march, some angry football chants, and an arrest for urinating on a police memorial. Your role as media villain is cemented.
The final path is to extricate oneself from the roadshow and abandon the over-consumption of elite sport, whose stars hold their followers in open contempt. Found again associations that can cultivate community, bodily health, and earnest competition. This is the most arduous path of the lot, yet offers the greatest promise. Let us hope there are enough among the throng willing to try it, and in a decade or so some fruits may bear. Sport lads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!
Image used for reporting purposes