Why is it, someone asked, that sportspersons are expected to inhabit a higher moral universe than others? Why judge them with different standards? Corruption is a way of life in the subcontinent. People with far more sordid crimes on their hands than agreeing to bowl the odd no-ball occupy high offices.
This is true. Mohammad Azharuddin, for instance, was banned from cricket for life but could still be voted into Parliament. When India’s ruling party put him up as a candidate, they were safe in the knowledge that Azharuddin’s misdemeanours did not compare to those of many other parliamentarians. Even so, few cricket lovers—including, possibly, those who elected him—would disagree that the cricket ban on Azhar was perfectly just. Likewise, few Pakistanis think that Mohammad Amir can touch President Zardari on the corruption scale. Zardari is not about to get banned for anything, not even getting creepy with Sarah Palin.
Yet, I don’t think this is a plain case of hypocrisy. There is a reason that sportspersons are held to a different standard, and it is based on the sound principle that the idea, the beautiful illusion, of sport is otherwise untenable. The thing absolutely collapses.
Sport is metaphor. Its essentially trivial rivalries in a giant triviality that is a game—cardboard heroes versus cardboard villains—only assume monumental stature in our imagination because we invest in them the power of metaphor. An innings can come to stand for a phase in your life, in a relationship, the state of the nation. A defeat can be elevated to tragedy because its participants have been bestowed with the metaphoric power of dramatic actors. The drama is premised on the point that ultimately the best effort, the highest skill, must win (though “fate” or “luck” may intervene, which makes the drama all the grander).
Tainted: (from left) Pakistani cricketers Amir, Asif and Butt were accused of accepting money from bookies to underperform. Carl Court/AFP
This is the bond between sports player and sports watcher. They may occasionally forget, but professional players are aware of this, because they were once, as children, as amateurs, on the other side of the fence. Without this bond, they know sport is nothing. Ironic then, that when sportspersons deliberately underperform, they are charged with conspiring to defraud bookmakers, rather than the public. Which is to say, the relationship between sportspersons and those who watch them is so abstract that it cannot be framed in legal terms. Matters of money, on the other hand, belong to the real world.
A fixing scandal is especially fascinating in that it puts in conflict these worlds of sport, the metaphoric versus the real. The real world of sport has always operated within a gambling den; the challenge always has been to keep it insulated. Eight Men Out, the film on the baseball fixing scandal of 1919, superbly captures this conflict. It shows you that sports players are also disgruntled employees, or struggling family men, vulnerable people with economic insecurities, driven by naked greed or worn down by real-world cynicism, surrounded by sharks.
“I must have made 10 times more betting on you than you did slugging it out,” a shark tells a former boxer and tanker in the film. “And I never took a punch.”
“Yeah, but I was champ. Featherweight champion of the world.”
“Yesterday. That was yesterday.”
This is the context in which Pakistan’s young trio could be seen falling prey to the likes of Mazhar Majeed. We’ve read about it: the poor payments, the humble backgrounds, the meagre education, the short professional careers. Over this the lack of playing opportunities—an indictment of Pakistan, its most talented citizens denied a right to a living because of the state’s failure to safeguard visitors.
Despite the ignominy of a life ban from cricket, Mohammad Azharuddin won a seat in Parliament by a margin of more than 50,000 votes last year. Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times
Yet, as Chicago’s baseball conspirators found, it is harder than it seems to take the money and run. Once in the mouth of sharks it is almost impossible to ease out. Like it says in the film, “What you going to do, tell the cops?”
More harrowing still is the struggle with one’s own conscience. Sportspersons know sport, they feel it. Well into the fix, one conspirator says to another:
“I don’t care about the money.”
“Yeah,” his teammate concurs. “Peculiar way to find that out, ain’t it?”
The eight players of the Chicago White Sox were found not guilty in a court of law. Yet, each—including one who did not accept a cent, did not underperform, simply was privy to the dealings—was handed a life ban by Judge Landis, appointed as baseball’s first commissioner, tasked with restoring public confidence in the sport. That is, like Azharuddin, they were deemed okay for the world, but not sport.
Severe action against Pakistan’s beguiling young talents, therefore, would not be exceptional. Dishonesty in life is dishonesty in life. Dishonesty in sport is dishonesty in all we’d like to believe about life. Take that away and there’s not much in it.
Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, if corrupt, could become political leaders or business tycoons. But I’m not sure cricket can afford them.Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book, Pundits from Pakistan.
Write to Rahul at firstname.lastname@example.org