November 3, 2011

Does our society breed corrupt sportsmen?

If Butt and Co are to blame, so is the environment that produced them

At the heart of the pain that the spot-fixing revelation, and now judgement, has spawned is the assumption that we make about the moral fibre of sportspeople. As a purely financial matter, what the Pakistani players have been found guilty of wouldn't even be classified as a misdemeanour: maybe a father casting a stern look at a son; no more. Every cricketing country will have thrown up crimes of greater financial magnitude than this in the last 12 months, and India is particularly culpable. If a politician had done this, it wouldn't even have made it to the news.

But sport tugs at the heart in a way no other public activity can. And it does because sport, in its most pristine, blemishless form, is unscripted. People win and lose, they laugh and they cry, but they strive at all times. It is what makes sport noble. As front pages around the world grow increasingly morose, as even religion spews hatred and division, sport is meant to tell us what life should be like. It makes us park our faith at its altar. That is why what Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif have done evokes sadness and disillusionment in far greater measure than the financial implications of their act.

But sportsmen come from the same society as everyone else. Among sportsmen are the noble, the diligent and the caring, as there are the callous, the cheats and the criminals. As an actor is good at delivering lines, a painter at creating art out of an empty canvas, so too are sportsmen at kicking a ball or finely timing it through cover. We must expect no more. Indeed, I go through bouts of disillusionment myself. In football, players seem to cheat every minute, in cricket they try to hoodwink an umpire into giving a batsman out, in athletics they stuff themselves with performance enhancers.

In fairness, though, sportsmen attain fame far earlier than people do in almost any other profession. Raw youth is thrust onto a public stage and expected to be mature and discerning. Often, therefore, they get shaped by the air they breathe in their vicinity. It is an underestimated factor. One of the reasons you study at great institutions or aspire to work in great corporations is that you hope to acquire the values they stand for.

While deterrence is a likely outcome of the sentencing, there is also the possibility of greater cynicism; of people believing that an unusual moment in a game is not the result of ingenuity and skill but merely an act in a script

And so Pakistan cricket must ask itself what kind of air the youngsters in the team were breathing. Amir could not have been born corrupt, nor for that matter Butt. There must have been something in the environment that told them it was okay to do what they did. People often talk about the invincibility that power lulls you into believing in; on the subcontinent, young cricketers start believing that the adulation bestowed upon them will allow them to get away with anything. This is therefore as much the fault of Butt, Amir and Asif as it is of those who created the environment in which it was deemed acceptable to do the things these players did.

Hopefully this will be a deterrent, but the onus on creating that environment lies with those who administer cricket. You cannot have oddballs running cricket. Lung cancer is a deterrent but it doesn't seem to stop people, otherwise perfectly discerning, from smoking. The Madoffs do get caught and jailed for a lifetime but every day there is another Ponzi scheme being plotted and another sucker drawn in.

Administrations will have to be particularly diligent. In fact, a solid man at the head of the PCB could actually use this to turn Pakistan cricket around. I do not know enough about the structure there to know whether this is a possibility or just a silly statement, but I do know that the world can do with Pakistan cricket being strong and honest.

And so while deterrence is a likely outcome of the sentencing, there is also the possibility of greater cynicism; of people believing that an unusual moment in a game is not the result of ingenuity and skill but merely an act in a script. That is why we need strong administration.

In the past Australia, England and the West Indies have shown little inclination to investigate within, and there is a feeling in the game that Sri Lanka could have done more. India took some action but not through a judicial process. It would be fair to say that in our part of the world the current revelations would have been suffocated by bureaucratic and legal red tape. To that extent, cricket owes the English legal system a big thank you.

The easy way out is to attack the ICC. It is not much good doing that because the ICC doesn't have the power to send people to jail or to launch a sting of the kind the News of the World did. And they cannot take action until they have irrefutable evidence either. Like us they see games where something seems amiss, but that is not much to go by. However tame it might seem, education, and stringent punishment in the face of evidence, is about as far as they can go.

And I think it is important, too, to remember that there are people who have said no to dubious money. It is a star that those with character can wear proudly. Hopefully that list will always be bigger than that in the Hall of Shame.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashish on November 7, 2011, 3:37 GMT

    @Dravid_Gravitas- I think he's talking less about the family or neighborhood culture and more about the sporting culture as well as national culture. What do you expect from the countries of the subcontinent where the rule makers have been found corrupt. We don't mind doing a little bit of hocus pocus as it has become a part of the culture. For example someone might naively say "what's the big deal?? They just bowled a couple of pre-empted no-balls. It's not that they lost the match because of that." This thinking has crept into the society and has to be countered.

  • rao on November 4, 2011, 15:41 GMT

    Harsha, some of you statements are like Sachins Straight , looks very simple ,attractive and effective. Incidentally I am few years Junior in University College of Technology,Osmaina University.I always enjoy your articles.Keep it up. Rao

  • Pravin on November 4, 2011, 15:36 GMT

    "And I think it is important, too, to remember that there are people who have said no to dubious money. It is a star that those with character can wear proudly. Hopefully that list will always be bigger than that in the Hall of Shame." Harsha how many people can you claim to have said no to dubious money, can you name a few ... There are a lot of these people who take the dubious money in kind if not in cash. Money in any form is accepted as gifts and no one refuses a gift..

  • the on November 4, 2011, 11:02 GMT

    It is not society. it is the administrators caught up in their petty political games. We need professionals to run the sport. And I think we have been to scared to call a spade a spade. That includes commentators and the media. Everybody seems so caught up in making money that they have forgotten that cricket is a sport not business. If you happen to make money off it, that is a bonus.

  • Tejas on November 4, 2011, 9:58 GMT

    Harsha, I think you stopped short of saying that what the 3 players did is the tip of the iceberg and is happening with the knowledge and support of the administration who also have their fingers in the pie. We Indians have seen that the people at the bottom offend when they know their superiors back it by having a share in it. So let us not just expect the management to be strong - we need to be sure they are clean.

  • jaswant on November 4, 2011, 9:10 GMT

    Greed is a human factor, if not controlled, leads to crimes of various stratas.When one gets absorbed into the torrent of materialism,basic laws from within are broken.AS we tresspass the forbidden,a new creation is born,a demon who sits on the receptacle of truth.Our perspective has now changed, self is lost in that which is illusive.The hurt is gradual and malignant,not only to one's self,but to all nature.We are in possession of our faculties and it is imperative that we take advantage of this sacred mechanism that leads to the path of freedom.That path is the truth, where the shadow of nobility comforts and protects from all contaminations.

  • raheel on November 4, 2011, 8:34 GMT

    Good article reflecting the general malaise in society that corruption is a simple get out for people to make money. Point here is that CORRUPTION IS CORRUPTION wherever it takes place and for the most no one here in the West can claim to be guardians of a corruption free society...I mean look at the UK politicians caught out with expenses and having second homes etc...corruption is just as rife here than it is elsewhere, the difference is that it is more overt in the sub-continent than here. This doesnt make it right, far from it, but if someone asked you to pay them to "jump the queue" so to speak in order to get ahead what would you do? You could say no and maintain a higher moral stance but humans being what they are, even the most humble can sometimes feel "cutting corners" is the only way to get ahead. This is a very complex issue and it cannot be analysed on one or two points alone. I hope sport in general learns from darkest of moments.

  • P Subramani on November 4, 2011, 7:33 GMT

    The compulsion to make big money comes from greed as Justice Cooke mentioned in his conviction order. That is absolutely true. When one sees others around one, rich and affluent, the desire to make money becomes too powerful. Almost everywhere in the world, there is so much of disparity between the haves and have nots that it seems not very wrong to justify to oneself that one is not doing any wrong by making quick money when one has the opportunity to do so. In cricket, it is the talent that causes players to look for more. In India, the fact that corruption has hit the high benchmark was known to everyone but till Anna Hazare focussed on it the people affected did not know that they could do something about it. As far as cricket is concerned, this verdict will have a big impact because those that are involved have been sent to jail. The stigma that accompanies is not something that can be washed away in a hurry. For generations the family will suffer because there was a cheat in it.

  • Kannan on November 4, 2011, 4:52 GMT

    @Mufakir: If a personal decision is influenced by what you experience in your lifetime and the world around you, then all that can be said is that the people concerned are not well grounded in value systems that help them keep away from the wrong while sticking to the right. This may seem like a failing of society, but as adults it is for everybody to take ownership of their actions and not blame others and the environment. Not doing so is not adult behaviour. Nobody is singling out Pakistan. I don't see why Pakistani society should play victim already and go on the defensive, for the individual actions of their cricketers. If the malaise is widespread it is for Pakistani establishment (as also the others) to clean up in their respective countries.

  • Srinivas on November 4, 2011, 4:34 GMT

    Harsha, I finished reading your article now. You seem to suggest that this incident is a result of the society they are coming from. I disagree there with you. Humans, while growing up, imbibe values into their inner consiousness or subconciousness from their micro-environment. What is a micro-environment? It is our immediate family. To suggest that the society is responsible for this incident is akin to saying that everybody is corrupt. You know that isn't true. These blokes developed certain values as part of their learning while growing up and they, with a fixed personality by now, have selected the corrupt people in the wider society around them to imitate. I wouldn't say more than that about the role of the society in determining our choices and, by extension, our actions. Though I respect your immense knowledge and lucid articulation, I must say that I'm disappointed at your lenience to call this act as something that just deserves a stern look from a father. I beg to differ.

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