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Sportsmen have a platform — some use it well, others waste it

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File picture of Australian cricketer Usman Khawaja, who was told by the ICC that personal messages are not allowed on equipment.

File picture of Australian cricketer Usman Khawaja, who was told by the ICC that personal messages are not allowed on equipment.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

Here are two statements. “All lives are equal”, and “Freedom is a human right”. Unexceptional, you might think. If a sportsman wore shoes with these slogans, the most you could accuse him of might be labouring the obvious.

But Australian batter Usman Khawaja was asked not to do so by the International Cricket Council ahead of the Test against Pakistan. The ICC thought it was a political statement and pointed out that personal messages are not allowed on equipment.

Khawaja has said he will try to convince the ICC, and he might yet wear the slogans on his shoes in later Tests. The Australian captain and players have been supportive.

Of the many questions this gives rise to, the most obvious is: can anyone seriously believe that all lives are not equal, or that freedom is not a human right? Personal messages these might be, perhaps even political ones pointing to the carnage in Gaza (although that is a connection not stated, only implied), but it is difficult to fault Khawaja’s argument that these are humanitarian messages. Equally, it is possible that one man’s humanitarian message is another man’s political. It depends on which side of the fence you are standing on.

You can see the ICC’s point of view, of course. It can’t allow one player to wear a slogan that is acceptable and unexceptional while disallowing another from wearing the opposite. Where do you draw the line?

Obligation

The larger question here is: What is a sportsman’s obligation towards the world around him? Sportsmen have a platform denied to other professionals, but with that power must come responsibility. And an awareness of the world.

If international sport is the highest form of physical endeavour, a sportsman’s mental attitude must reflect the best humanity has to offer. Both these might come under the heading of wishful thinking or unattainable goals, but if we don’t admit this, at least theoretically, terms like ‘sport’ or ‘humanism’ have no meaning.

Organisations like the Unicef make use of a player’s platform to spread their message (as do advertisers, but that need not detain us here), so why should a sportsman be denied a chance to speak up for the larger humanity?

In recent years, teams have worn ‘Black Lives Matter’ logos on their shirts, while even India — with problems of their own back home — have taken the knee ahead of an international. The ICC did not disallow these personal/political messages and acts, calculating correctly that they were in the larger good. And they reflected well on the governing body.

International sportsmen tend to live in a bubble, often for self-preservation, keeping silent because they lack the background to have an opinion on world events. Most of the world is happy with this arrangement — and reacts sharply when sportspersons break the bubble and let the real world seep into their lives. Bowlers can tell us about putting the ball in the right places, and batters about the state of the pitch. That’s all.

Aligning with issues of the day

Sport is an artificial construct, but sportsmanship is not. Increasingly, players from England and Australia are aligning themselves with movements dealing with the issues of the day. Pat Cummins was recently named Athlete of the Year in BBC’s Green Sport Awards. His Cricket for Climate Foundation aims to make cricket in Australia carbon neutral.

After the World Cup in India, the England players’ union asked for cricket to adopt a more proactive response to the climate crisis. One suggestion was that teams should refuse to play at venues where the AQI (air quality index) endangers their health. Another was to have only day/night Tests in response to rising global temperatures.

India’s superstars are not known for taking a stand on global or national issues, which is a pity. Traditionally they support whoever is in power. None of them is likely to go into an international with ‘Freedom is a human right’ written between advertising logos on themselves.

In a country of a billion and a half, you can’t make a statement without millions finding fault with it. Social media trolls are a menace, so players keep out of their way. And the platform goes waste.

Khawaja might not convince the ICC, but he has made a point.

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