Can an athlete be a role model 24×7? (Column: Just Sport)

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Apocryphal or real, years ago a story did the rounds about a lady calling a popular cricketers hotel room when the team was overseas. A lady who answered the call, identified herself as the players wife, and wanted to know if she could take a message for him as he was in the bath. The caller quipped: Please tell him that his real wife called!

There are plenty of such hilarious stories from the world of sport. The question when do private lives get public or whether athletes should be treated differently from celebrities in other fields surfaced yet again as the domestic problem of India’s premier fast bowler Mohammed Shami and his wife became a matter for the Indian cricket board to sit in judgment.

In case of sportspersons, their organisations bring in a clause “bringing game into disrepute” or breach of contract to act against them.

Much of the moral code is the offshoot of social media where everyone expresses even before a thorough inquiry is conducted by a competent authority in what is called a ‘media trial’.

Shami is not the first cricketer nor is he going to be the last one to be corrupted by fame. Carrying fame is also as essential as performing on the field of play. If someone like Anil Kumble cried hoarse on the off-field activities of young cricketers or if he tried to check the fresh minds from going astray, not many in the board took him seriously.

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The flip side of Kumble’s philosophy is the one practiced by people who did not care much about what the players did once they are out of the field of play and have performed to the team management’s satisfaction.

There is that famous interview of Colin Ingleby-McKenzie after leading Hampshire to the County championship in 1961:

“Mr Ingleby-Mackenzie, to what do you attribute Hampshire’s success?”

“Oh, wine, women and song, I should say.”

“But don’t you have certain rules, discipline, helpful hints for the younger viewer?”

“Well, everyone in bed in time for breakfast, I suppose.”

“Yes, thank you. Perhaps we could take a look in the dressing room?”

“Certainly, if you don’t mind me wandering about in the nude.”

His motto was that cricket should be played for fun, as well as for victory. There was plenty of laughter in his dressing room and also plenty of women visitors to cheer him and the team up.

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Today, cricketers know that the game is a serious profession and business and they think twice before transgressing the rules of morality in public.

There have been instances when Indian players were disciplined for their nocturnal activities during Test matches. They could not do much with them in those years because they were all top class performers. Curfews were observed more in the breach in those years when there was hardly any money in the game.

One need not go that far, in recent decades there have been quite a few cricketers who had troubled personal lives, but that hardly seemed to have affected their on-field play. Some quietly sought to divorce their wives even if some others made it a public spectacle just as it is being played out with Shami and his estranged wife.

Both Shami and his wife appeared in front of television cameras to put forth their sides of the story and they have been subjected to intense grilling by the media.

The tragedy with Shami is that his private life got public on the day the board announced the central contracts for players. Shami on his performance charts would or should be in the top bracket along with skipper Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan who all will receive Rs 7 crores. But the board decided to keep his name in abeyance, pending the disposal of his wife’s FIR with the Kolkata police.

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But the board tried to play safe by issuing a statement through an unnamed official, labouring to explain that it has taken cognizance of the inquiry and also explaining that the move has nothing to do with his cricketing merits.

Shami has realized that the issue cannot be taken too far as that would affect his career. He has already made conciliatory statements, but it is for his wife to respond.

In the meantime his contract is in limbo and a debate is raging yet again whether sportspersons should be role models in their sport or they should be exemplary in everything they do 24X7?

Is an athlete’s private life open to public, is there a line drawn?

(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])

–IANS

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