On 20 December, four days after the Delhi gang rape, cricketer Yuvraj Singh dedicated his man-of-the-match award for a Twenty20 match against England to the victim—then still alive—and said he and his teammates were concerned about her.
Singh has recently learnt a thing or two about adversity, and beating it, and it is likely his words—unprompted and unscripted—came from a deeper space than the usual celebrity platitudes. What followed, though, was a deafening silence: Singh’s sentiments were not echoed by his teammates—the most high-profile of all Indian sportsmen—nor by those from other sports. There was outrage and condemnation, there was even a protest at Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports or NSNIS, Patiala. But there was no concerted, overarching, impactful statement from the sporting fraternity, no message of inspiration or instruction to society at large. In my estimate, a huge moment missed.
Not just for society at large but for sportspersons—especially female—themselves.
Indian sportswomen are among those most vulnerable to gender-based discrimination, at best, and various forms of sexual harassment. Anyone who has been involved in any manner with Indian sport will have heard the stories of how sportswomen are treated as second-class citizens of the world of sport, passed over when the goodies are being handed out, made to battle overwhelming odds at home, at school, in the workplace, in a marriage, just to get to the field of play. That’s the good part. Along the way they face all manner of harassment—to the point where sex becomes the currency for recognition or advancement. The circumstances are fertile—these are largely young women, usually from the hinterland and lacking awareness of their basic rights, away from home in a sports hostel (which lent a certain irony to the Patiala protest), sometimes out on tour, far away from their comfort zones or familiar environs. They enter what is effectively an old boys’ club, where those in charge—at every level, from local coach to association president—exhibit the same patriarchal characteristics that have been the centre of our vilification.
In many ways, the film Chak De! India summed up both sides of the problem. On the one hand, the patronizing attitude towards women sportsmen, as exhibited most overtly by the federation officials—let them first prove themselves against the boys and, when they did, a cursory wave of the hand to signal assent to their world cup odyssey. On the other, the scene in which Bindia Naik, the team’s alpha female, finally confronts coach Kabir Khan over his decision in favour of her arch-rival Vidya Sharma. “What do you see in her that you don’t see in me?” she asks Khan. “Anything she’s done for you, I can do better.”
One of the key people involved in training the cast for the film’s hockey scenes was Maharaj Krishan Kaushik, who later became the India women’s coach. In 2010, he was sacked from that job following allegations of sexual harassment by one of his players; he was cleared of the charge of sexual harassment and of demanding sexual favours but was found guilty of passing “sexually coloured remarks”.
It need not go so far, of course. It is often just stony silence, or downright arrogance, that can dissuade sportswomen. Ask Diana Eduljee about the double standards in Indian cricket—among those who play the game, those who run it, those who finance it and even those who cover it. What she tells you will make you think twice about the game you love. Or recall the comments you might have heard about badminton player Gutta Jwala when she was linked with ex-cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin.
And so my initial grouse: Why not—in 2012, a year in which Indian sportsmen and especially sportswomen excelled on the biggest stage—use those youth icons to send out a message? Would it have been too much to expect a motivational ad featuring Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Geeta Phogat, their male counterpart shooters, boxers, wrestlers, cricketers, golfers, tennis players, all those who lure us to the TV screens when they are in action on the field? It’s not that they don’t do pro bono campaigns: Virat Kohli was the face of the Election Commission’s National Voters’ Day campaign last week and his captain M.S. Dhoni has now been named, along with Nehwal and Mary Kom, as the EC’s “youth icons” (and hopefully that will undo the bad karma of Kohli’s tasteless “ladki patana” ad, which runs totally counter to the zeitgeist).
Sport’s power to be an agent of social change is often underestimated but one need only look at the examples of Mohun Bagan’s win in 1911 and, farther afield, the heroism of former boxer Muhammad Ali and former athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the 1968 Black Power salute. And of course the unflinching, brave and brutal honesty of former tennis players Martina Navratilova and Billie-Jean King in bringing homosexuality in sport into the open—and paving the way for others to come out.
Yet it is also true that times have changed—that today’s sportsmen, as with most other professionals, are less free than their predecessors. They live under tight control in an increasingly cookie-cutter celebrity world, their every movement scripted and choreographed, their clothes vetted by stylists, their statements by PR persons, their tweets by their clubs, boards and associations. Sometimes they buck the trend and take a stand—as the Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand did when refusing to wear an anti-racism T-shirt, believing the organization it publicized hadn’t done enough to tackle the issue. His manager Alex Ferguson was quick to criticize Ferdinand’s stand but the players’ union backed his right to exercise his free choice.
As a provocatively titled article in Sports Illustrated last year (“Why Don’t More Athletes Take A Stand?”) explains, sportsmen haven’t stopped doing good deeds, they’ve just stopped doing what could be even remotely seen as controversial. It notes how Tiger Woods, early on in his stardom, featured in ads that attacked the tacit racism then prevailing in golf. Stardom secured, he trod a safer path. “When it comes to social action that might step on toes, that might send a shiver down the spine of their publicists or their corporate sponsors, what have American athletes done?” it asks. Carlos’s answer is pithy: “They’ve put the dollar bill in front of the human race.”
In a landscape terrifyingly bare of heroes, sport is one of the few oases. From Mahi to Mary, Narang to Nehwal, they can help shape opinion, inspire thought and action. Together, the country needs them—not to spearhead the revolution but to speak out. That would truly be a golden goal.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.