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Sport Has Been Weaponised, Shami Is Proof

Mohammed Shami was targeted with online abuse after India’s loss to Pakistan on 24 October. Courtesy: Indian Cricket Team/Facebook

You can walk into work on a Monday and not feel up to it. That’s perfectly understandable. You can have a lazy Friday and that’s acceptable as well. Except…That’s not how it works for the sportsperson at all. They can’t even have a middling Sunday. To be unable to perform at the highest stage – that’s a cardinal sin these days especially if fans are vested in your sport.

How dare they, earning millions of dollars and living the rockstar life at my expense, fail to perform at the exact moment that I need them, asks the passionate fan? How can they not be at their magnificent best every single moment when so many of us look up to them, questions the aficionado watching the game with feverish excitement?

These days, it may not be merely about the result. The hate that was directed at Mohammed Shami — the only Muslim player in a team of eleven Indians — after India’s loss against Pakistan in the T20 World Cup had nil to do with the fact that it was a subpar outing for the team or for the pacer. This was a coordinated communal attack – representative of the times that we live in. Sport was the medium this time around. 

The team – sport’s basic unit – always has to take accountability in team sport. Win or loss – that goes in the record column of the team. Have no doubts about it – the individual only wants wins next to the name. Yet, modern digital lynch mobs need that scapegoat – that one member to be isolated from the herd and turned into the lightning rod of all vitriol – to satisfy their necessity for instant bloodlust.

This situation lends itself perfectly to identity ‘otherization’. It’s very visible in England when the young black footballer gets the hate for his team’s loss or in the rest of Europe when immigrants are instantly picked out for a team’s collective bad day at the office. 

In cricket, a sport heavily worshipped and inextricably intertwined with the socio-cultural fabric of India, Mohammed Shami isn’t the first nor will he be the last to face the hate that he has been subjected to. The same Shami whose performances at the 2019 World Cup earned rave reviews, had his performances forgotten in an instant.

Identity politics have always been a part of sport. Having seen the good, bad, and ugly of Indian sport as a sportswriter, the feeling deep down was that this day was coming – when sport in this country stopped being solely about sporting merit. It must be acknowledged that these communal ideas of sport have always existed on the fringe; never have they been given such a public platform to flourish.

Critique his performance if you will – and it is the team management, as well as the scribe’s job to take a good, hard, long look at the facts and dissect them before dissemination – but to abuse him based on his identity, would be to fiddle with the most important tenet at the core foundation of sport. All are equal on the field of play, no matter what they’re paid, where they come from, and what they look like – and no one, absolutely no one gets a head start or a demotion at the start. Those in the profession of following their beloved sport while actively practicing prejudice forget sport’s great principles borrowed from the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The era of social media has put a deeper focus on the relationship between the athlete and the writer. The liberty to analyze a performance and call it ‘poor’ has slowly eroded and must be carefully exercised now. The writer must be careful to not trigger any dormant bigotry and not amplify any barrage of hostility lurking around the corner. 

Athletes themselves have become lukewarm towards any critical questions posed to them in the aftermath of a disappointing outing. Shields are drawn up and non-answers serve as an expression of disinterest in the query. It is understandably so; sport is a highly emotional affair. After a crushing defeat, no one wants to see their words misinterpreted and blown out of context. The sportswriter has a greater responsibility in this era of hate; to call the mischievous elements out and focus on the game. We must be aware of off-field power dynamics and factor those in while submitting our takes.

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Yet the most damning of revelations for those still willfully subscribing to the ‘sport unites all’ school of thought might be the fact that Shami wasn’t targeted for his performance. It was exactly that; communal dog-whistling intended to turn into a deliberate witch-hunt. Television channels gave the mobs exactly what they wanted prior to the game; running a dozen jingoistic ads. 

At the local level, sport binds communities. On the global stage, it can be a nationalistic exercise in establishing supremacy and bragging rights over the other country.

The Indian team took the knee prior to the game, in reference to NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. This gesture however happened to be lost on some of the Indian cricket team’s fans who promptly put Shami through the proverbial wringer after the game. Demi-gods they may be, but even they failed to effect any meaningful change through this intended symbolism. You have to ask yourself what was the intended outcome of ‘taking the knee’ if it couldn’t prevent a teammate from being harassed and slandered.

Perhaps that is the solution; to not turn them into demi-gods. But then the sport wouldn’t remain the large commercial and extravagant spectacle that it has become today, on the back of these talented individuals. The team wouldn’t remain the vicarious vehicle for fans and supporters to live, swear and breathe by. The hub of hopes and dreams that is a sport, reduced to merely another mundane industry is quite frankly, unimaginable.

As a sports writer, I want to say leave sport alone. Let us be. Let us enjoy superhuman feats with eyes agog – just the way it was meant to be. Let us bask in the glories of victory and cry for devastating losses – the natural order of sport. My fear is that we may never be able to return to this order.

Arka Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based sportswriter, covering sport across the length and breadth of the country. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.

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