'It's about togetherness' - Fozz urges communities to unite for common cause

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After years of professional sports becoming increasingly detached from the communities they came from, Craig Foster hopes adversity can bring the two together.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, sport at all levels has been parked indefinitely and through the 'Play for Lives' initiative, the former Socceroos captain is urging people to spend hours they would normally dedicate to their team helping those who need it.

That includes the professionals.

"Having been idle now for almost a month, (sport's attitude) is turned from initial shock and a feeling of fear and crisis to now increasingly questioning 'what is our role? What should sport be doing now?" Foster said.

"And some in sport have felt that their role is to try to continue to play on or to play as quickly as possible but a growing number of us feel that, actually, the real responsibility of sport now is to help and to give."

Playforlives.org works to connect those in sport - both local and professional - with charities who need a hand.

The charity sector is in extra need of support as a large number of usual volunteers are over 65, and considered high-risk in the COVID-19 pandemic, while the crisis has exacerbated the issues many vulnerable communities already faced.

And athletes are the perfect group to step up.

"Those of us in community sport who had attributed at least 5-8 hours per week to our amateur team or sport are now really motivated to apportion that time commitment across to vulnerable communities who are in circumstances far worse than ourselves," Foster said.

"I think it's also almost a historic opportunity for sport to recalibrate our relationship with all of society and to better understand vulnerable communities who were perhaps invisible to professional athletes and professional sport."

Foster has been playing a leading role at Addison Road Community Organisation in Marrickville, where volunteers pack hampers of food to be delivered to those in need.

Former Sydney Swans Kieren Jack and Nick Smith join him on a near-daily basis, while current and former footballers - from former Socceroos skipper Alex Tobin to Sydney FC's Ally Green - have also put their hands up.

"What we're finding is professional athletes and international athletes are very much enjoying the opportunity to take a much more outward focus and to learn about different vulnerable communities and to actually embed themselves," Foster said.

"Which is a very rare opportunity for them because sport today is virtually year-round, the time and energy demands are extremely high and this is a very rare moment when athletes are challenged by having time on their hands.

"And by applying it to helping others who they would otherwise perhaps never even meet, they're starting to learn about different social cohorts, different communities of vulnerable people, they're learning more about social justice, they're learning more about the world around them and they're also able to take back some control of their present environment."

Foster believes professional sport can mobilise in two crucial ways, through individual volunteering, but also in amplifying the message to sports' largest base: the grassroots.

"Many of us feel that sport has moved away from some of the core values and the essence of community and perhaps the relationship from top to bottom, from professional to amateur and grassroots is not as strong as it should be," he said.

"This is a phenomenal opportunity for professional sport to demonstrate connection with, respect for and better understanding of their actual grassroots community clubs.

"Because it's through those community clubs that sport can make a substantive impact for Australia right now... the grassroots are extensive and extend to millions of people.

"And sport is starting to reorient to say 'if we're to encourage our sport to mobilise here, we could actually make a huge impact in assisting our countrymen and women to get through this together.

"And ultimately that's what sport is about - it's about togetherness and it's about community."

The benefits go both ways.

Being involved in sport plays a crucial role in mental health and Foster believes the "togetherness" sports clubs can create through collective volunteering efforts can maintain the connections typically forged on the training track.

"For millions of Australians, their main social connection network is through their sporting club or team and at the moment, that also has been obliterated," Foster said.

"Sport is postponed, sport is off - it's not happening.

"There's no discussions to be had on a Tuesday night about how sore your hamstring is, there's no laughter about how badly someone is training, there's no opportunity to be with your tennis coach and discuss the poor quality of your backhand.

"There's no opportunity to coach your netball team... particularly for the tens of thousands of community clubs, that immediate social connection that we need so greatly has been severed.

"And what Play for Lives is saying to the national sporting community is 'keep that alive' ... (and) we keep it alive not by playing on field but by helping others.

"And by doing so we are discovering a new sense of compassion, that there might be a better way for sport to operate."

Source AAP