Opinion

Sport is about hope - Australia needs that now

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Ordinarily, talking about football or broader sport would seem trite right now.

Nothing penetrates the bubble of passion and joy that is often distanced from real world problems, than individuals, family, a country and the better part of the world watching a pandemic cause devastation, including to the sports industry itself.

While sport is often seen in the frame of fun and frivolity, it is of course an industry with hundreds of thousands of jobs and roles at stake which are important to people’s lives and well-being, and the fallout in Australia - including in football - has been immense.

Football around the world turning its thoughts to how it can become more sustainable is an overdue imperative but this is not the trigger we would ever wish to make that occur.

No sport is immune, of course, and the nation, like so many others, is experiencing a collective trauma.

Everyone is hurting. In sport, though, we must always look and plan ahead.

The question then becomes, how do we act in this crisis, how do we manage together, what should we do once the initial shock has subsided?

How can we have hope and inspiration, the sort of things we take for granted in sport?

Sport is about resilience, endurance, teamwork of course, solidarity among people within individual sports and a collective. And above all it is about hope. Inspiration.

That’s what we all need right now, what Australia needs most of all.

And sport is fast becoming central to Australia's response. Not just now, but in months to come.

We were only recently training in pre-season, at least millions like me were, playing for the Waverley Old Boys over 35’s.

Now that our football and other sport seasons are postponed, all that energy and, crucially, time that was devoted to the game is a vast resource that Australia needs.

What if we could re-purpose that time and do good, help the country, bring our expertise to bear for others?

What sort of positive impact can sport have on the nation at a time when the country needs care and compassion, togetherness, resolve and hope above all else?

We are building a sporting coalition for humanity that grew within football, to ask the entire sports participant and club base to help people worse off than ourselves. Everyone. A mass movement. There are many millions of participants across sport in Australia.

Waverley Old Boys launched a movement called '#PlayForLives, not points' during the week, well supported by a cast that included Patty Zwaanswijk and Alex Tobin at Hills United FC, and the fantastic guys at Albion Park City FC and Pascoe Vale FC in Melbourne and set about transmitting the hope that sport gives us, to others.

And legends of many sports got in touch immediately to ask how they might contribute.

But worryingly, once word got out, the avalanche of inquiries from charities all around the country was overwhelming. The volunteer need has perhaps never been greater and there's a chronic shortage.

With security levels expected to escalate next Monday, criteria for direct service delivery volunteers will hit another level of crisis.

I know the angst this causes. It is severe, almost a panic from the people on the frontlines dealing with the surge in numbers, along with reduction in both funding and volunteers. It’s a vicious cycle that is compounding every day.

Charities and social service organisations around the country are running through a process to meet the criteria for essential services just to stay open. But even then, many have lost almost their entire volunteer force.

NSW Cancer Council, for example, have lost 90 percent of their volunteers across the state who are all over 60 years of age.

Forty drivers are needed right now for cancer patients in regional NSW to be able to access treatment. That means, at a moment of greatest health both to them and society, their treatment has stopped. We can’t begin to imagine the pain that must cause.

Meals on Wheels have a chronic need for drivers, because it is elderly Australians who mostly deliver the meals. Foodbank needs volunteers to deliver all over the country.

The list is growing by the minute. Many other charities are out of corporate support, and are closing the doors which only increases the load on the already stretched organisations at the frontline.

It’s been called a war, and it is absolutely a battle to keep people fed, housed and treated. One thing sport knows well is confronting challenges and overcoming them. We’re needed now.

These services are critical to people staying alive. Then comes the role of messaging and online support. Every NGO has different needs and programs, and this period is perfect for sports administrators and participants not suitable to direct service, to provide support online.

Whether online or off, Australia’s accredited sport coaches of any form are a highly valuable resource right now.

As working with children checks are required by many NGOs, we coaches are a ready-made resource that can step into the breach in coming months and support the vulnerable in a multitude of ways.

It’s time for sport to get active in a different field of life, and the benefits are not only to others, they are to us as well.

Sport has lost much of its social connection and culture of volunteering, as an age of commercialisation has taken the focus away from not just grass roots clubs, but the spirit of social responsibility it used to be renowned for.

Profiteering has taken over football and much of what we see is to take out, not put into the game.

This crisis can bring the social services sector into sport, and both partners will benefit.

During the #SaveHakeem campaign I saw the value of the human rights community connecting into sport, really compassionate people who are not concerned about the value of Lionel Messi’s contract, but the value of life.

Now sport can connect with charities and people in real, desperate need. Not by running club programs which are usually limited contact, but by getting to know them online, providing them a meal, driving them to a cancer appointment at hospital.

The underlying humanity of sport will be fundamentally adjusted, the more of us step forward to help.

Crises take us into a new zone of uncertainty and worry, and by engaging in social services directly, we meet human beings who provide a level of perspective on what we have that can often change lives.

We are putting sports in touch with the largest NGOs at the top level to enable the vertical infrastructure of sport to apply safety and mental health information and programs at scale, and building a platform that connects community charities and organisations with grassroots clubs in all of sport to fill a need that is historic, urgent and that can provide much needed comfort, and hope for Australia.

How will we bring this to life? Top down, some sports will partner directly with NGOs and deliver services to their constituents, others will work from community up and empower community clubs to speak with their local organisations and work with whoever needs help.

Both are extremely powerful. Most important is we all take action in some way. Governing bodies, associations, clubs, participants. This also allows us to activate the vast corporate partner network in sport to donate essential items and funds the sector desperately needs.

Both are equally important and all represent what #PlayForLives is about. The transfer of our passion, energy, drive and inspiration to a sector of our society that right now is in critical need.

Sport can help Australia resist, respond and repair.

And if we change the value system of sport, we change the world.

You can find more information at www.playforlives.org where the nice people from ‘Be Collective’ offered to build a free platform for connection that can last long past this crisis and create a powerful new culture in sport. More on that later.