The Sporting Bubble as Gilded Cage: Gendered Professional Sport in Pandemic Times and Beyond | A Summary

Adele Pavlidis1 & David Rowe2
School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University, Australia;
2 Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia

We were prompted to write this article in response to a call for a journal special issue on the subject of ‘Bubbles’. The concept of the bubble is frequently used, not least in relation to the culture of elite professional sport, but became even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly, sporting bubbles were controversial as locked down and restricted citizens protested that they were signs of privilege, while some of the sportspeople (mostly men) inside complained about isolation and entrapment.

We treat the metaphorical sporting bubble as a vernacular term used to capture and condemn the conditions of life of elite sportspeople (again, usually men), most commonly after there has been a sport-related scandal, especially of a sexual nature. It is frequently paired with negative adjectives like pampered and indulged, involving a highly privileged but also pressurised life for those inside. A sporting bubble is a world constructed for its most prized inhabitants that enables them to be protected from insurgents and to set the terms of their encounters with others, especially sport fans and disciplinary agents of the state. The Covid-19 pandemic both reinforced and reconfigured the bubble concept, re-arranging tensions between safety (protecting athletes) and fragility (short careers, risks of injury, etc.) for those within, while safeguarding those without from bubble contagion.

While many people with a very low risk of spreading Covid-19 were denied mobility across Australia for even the most serious of reasons (for example, relating to the death of a child), images of elite male football players and their families socialising and enjoying swimming at a luxury sporting bubble resort crossed the nation’s screens. Yet, despite their (players’, officials’ and families’) relative privilege and freedom of movement, some players and others inside the bubble were involved in scandals. Most notable was the case of a drunken brawl outside a strip club in coastal Queensland. But it was not only players who breached Covid-19 bubble protocols: coaches and other family members also broke rules, leading to further fines. Also of concern was the lack of physical distancing, and the range of people allowed into the sporting bubble, including babysitters, grandparents, and swimming coaches (for children).

Gendering sporting bubbles

We explored the sporting bubble as gendered spaces. Designed as biosecurity structures to maintain the supply of media-sport content, keep players and other vital cogs of the machine running smoothly, and to exclude Covid-19, sporting bubbles were, in their most advanced form, exclusive luxury camps that illuminated the elevated socio-cultural status of sportsmen. The ongoing inequalities between men’s and women’s sport in Australia and around the world were clearly in evidence, as well as the politics of gender whereby women are obliged to “care” and men are enabled to be “careless” – or at least to manage carefully their “duty of care”.

In Australia, the only sport for women that continued during the height of the Covid-19 lockdown was netball, which operated in a bubble that was one of sacrifice rather than privilege. With minimum salaries of only $AU30,000 – significantly less than the lowest paid “rookies” in the major men’s football codes – and some being mothers of small children and/or with professional jobs juggled alongside their netball careers, these elite sportswomen wanted to continue to play despite the personal inconvenience or cost. Not one breach of the netballers out of the bubble was reported, indicating that they took their responsibilities with appropriate seriousness and, perhaps, were subjected to less scrutiny than the sportsmen accustomed to attracting front-page headlines.

In the United States, inequalities between men’s and women’s sports were clearly demonstrated by the conditions inside the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) sport bubble in the IMG Academy in Florida.

National Netball League players could be regarded as fortunate to have the opportunity to be in a bubble and to participate in their competition. The NRL Women’s (NRLW) Premiership season (rugby league) was also completed, but only involved four teams subject to fly in, fly out and bubble arrangements, and being played in so-called curtain-raiser games for the (men’s) NRL. The AFLW (Australian rules football) season was truncated, despite all the prior training and sacrifice required of its players. Similarly, because of their resource advantages, the UK men’s and boy’s top six tiers of association football were allowed to continue during lockdown, compared to only two for women and girls. In the United States, inequalities between men’s and women’s sports were clearly demonstrated by the conditions inside the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) sport bubble in the IMG Academy in Florida. Players shared photos of rodent traps in their rooms, insect traps under their mattresses, inedible food and blocked plumbing in their bubble accommodation. These conditions were a far cry from the luxury usually afforded elite sportsmen, including in Florida’s Walt Disney World for the men’s NBA. These are just some of the many instances of how gendered inequality was both reproduced and exacerbated by Covid-19.

Bursting the bubble

We noted that governments and corporate leaders in sport were able to create material and metaphorical bubbles during the Covid-19 lockdown in order to transmit stadium sport contests into home spaces. The rationale was the importance of sport to national identity, belonging and the routines and rhythms of life. But for whom? Many women found that Covid-19 intensified the affective relations and gendered inequities of “home” as a leisure site. Rates of domestic violence surged, and many women experienced significant anxiety and depression related to the stress of home confinement and home schooling. During the pandemic, women were also more likely to experience the stress and trauma of being first responders, witnessing virus-related sickness and death as the majority of nurses and care workers. They also bore the brunt of much of the economic and employment loss. Also, livelihoods in the arts and cultural sector did not receive the benefits of the bubble, despite having a comparable claim to sport in contributing significantly to societal wellbeing. This sector’s workforce is substantially female, although men dominate its senior roles.

Life inside the sporting bubble could, though, be mentally stressful (especially in long stays of up to 150 days in sports like cricket), and tabloid and social media troll punishment awaited transgressors. But, life in the sporting bubble was generally preferable to the daily realities of those afflicted by the trauma arising from forced home confinement, and for whom watching moving sports images was scant compensation for compulsory immobility. The ethical foundation of the sparkly, ephemeral fantasy of the sporting bubble is questionable when it is placed in the service of a voracious “media sports cultural complex” that consumes sport labour power and rolls back progress in gender relations as a default response to a global pandemic.

Hence, we conclude that the gender and class inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19, and the precarious and pressured lives of elite athletes, were obscured by the sport bubbles. In the final analysis, the sporting bubble mainly serves those inside, floating tantalisingly out of reach of most of those outside who try to grasp its elusive power. It is a small group beyond who wield that power, having created bubbles as armoured vehicles to salvage any available profit in the midst of a global pandemic.

Copyright © Adele Pavlidis & David Rowe 2021

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