The new dance

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Economic powerhouses have always found a way to manipulate bodies for profit. Often through the exploitation of exotic, new, resources and human capital. The world of professional sport is no different.  

With impending financial implications looming, the NRL has finalised a new start date for rugby leagues largest competition.

The, co-COVID competition will resume on May 28th, 2020. As, potentially, the most valuable resource in this re-start the New Zealand Warriors have shattered their COVID-19 mandated bubbles and boarded a chartered flight out of Auckland. How long it takes for them to return to their partners, children and parents is currently unknown. Leave your families, leave your country and join a new bubble made up of professional athletes and relocate to New South Wales (Australia) to ensure the NRL can resume on May 28th.

As Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa Sheck stated prior to their departure: “We need to sacrifice our families and go over to Australia and go to work because that is what everyone wants.” But, is it what EVERYONE wants?

With broadcasting deals and spectator consumption driving the imminent, and apparently essential, return of the 2020 season, the question of how highly the NRL values its athletes, particularly those based in Auckland warrants some attention.

Initially the space of the poor white working class of Northern England rugby league has, since its inception in 1895, been regarded as a professional sport.  One result of this enduring professionalism has been the opportunity for financial security through rugby league. In our part of the world, the NRL has become a home for increasing numbers of Māori and Pasifika athletes (Over 45% of the playing roster, over 60% if we also include the Indigenous and Torres Straight Island athletes) who are pursuing the professional dream, and the spoils that come with it. Rugby league players become ‘rich’, they don’t often start that way.

The NRL has a resource pool that is getting browner each season, while its administration and management have remained resiliently white. Andrews et. al. (2010) discuss the racial composition of sport labour with regard to American sports. Brown athletes, white audiences, whiter employers. They ask whether there is a window here to examine a new commercially inspired popular racial representation. In the NRL it appears that the athletes are making the sacrifices here to fulfil the NRLs corporate needs.

So, with the dollar ruling the return to the 2020 season, what does this say of the NRL and their desire to place their athletes, in particular the brown ones, in a position to remain away from their families for the remainder of the year? And, what can we read into this position?

COVID-19 has created a world where the proximity of bodies is dangerous, the NRL profits from bodily contact. The NRL power brokers have decided that it is safe enough for players to return to training, and return to a competition where social distancing is about as likely as a white Christmas in the Far North of Aotearoa. But, does the financial gain of running a competition outweigh the ongoing risk of COVID-19 to the athletes on the field? How much risk does the administration of the game face when they themselves remain socially distanced in the corporate boxes for the 80 minute duration of each match played?

For me, it appears that the desires of CEOs, boards, sponsors and financial supporters prevail over the health and welfare (physical and mental) of the players. In the modern, globalised professional sporting world it is not uncommon for athletes to be seen less as people and more as a commodity; an important cog in the mechanism for profit making. This could be read as a form of modern colonialism where the exploration and exploitation of new territories and resources (athletes) surpasses the concerns of humanity.

In an era where athletes have begun to assert some influence on the shaping of sporting competitions through Players’ Associations and unions, it could be argued that the time for players to make a stand might be nigh. However, as much as the balance of power may appear to be shifting, it remains apparent that no matter how much public influence you may have, no matter how much the players may wish to push back; the all-whitey dollar will continue to hold more value than the stock of human capital on the footy field.

Time to dance.

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