Of sports, politics and the impact of social media

Most sportsmen are not political animals and sound like the mouthpieces of the establishment when they venture into unknown territory.

Sachin Tendulkar, who has kept himself away from making any political statements, has broken the principle of a lifetime, when he tweeted on the farmers’ issue recently.   -  PTI

The classic question, ‘should sport and politics mix’ has morphed in the 21st century to ‘should sportsmen and politicians mix’? Sport and politics do not exist in mutually exclusive boxes; sometimes sport is politics by other means (eg Hitler’s Berlin Olympics of 1936). When countries pull out of the Olympic Games or refuse to travel to another for political reasons, you can see the continuum.

A few years ago, a young cricketer told me, “Sir, demonitisation is the greatest thing to have happened to India since Independence.” The innocence was charming. He genuinely believed it and was thinking of sharing his insight with the world. I spent time explaining to him the value of silence. I told him about Sachin Tendulkar and how he kept himself away from making any political statements. “But I feel strongly…” he responded.

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And now Tendulkar himself has broken the principle of a lifetime. Perhaps he felt strongly too. I think he was wrong to do it — something social media quickly let him know.

Most sportsmen are not political animals and sound like the mouthpieces of the establishment when they venture into unknown territory. In Russia, the chess champion Garry Kasparov is an unabashed critic of the Putin government; he has always been so. He understands the issues and that’s not something you can say of sportsmen and women who merely cut-and-paste their apparent angst.

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How do we tell manufactured opposition from the real thing? Cut-and-paste gives us a hint. In Tendulkar’s case, it was strange coming from someone who consciously, even irritatingly, kept away from the controversies in his own field where a word from him carried enormous weight. I am speaking of issues like match fixing, poor player behaviour and more.

Political opinions across most of the world today are sharply divided, a division further deepened by social media. Think of the most bland statement a celebrity can make — and you can rest assured that it will give rise to strong ‘for’ and ‘against’ responses within minutes. One man’s patriot is another man’s traitor; one man’s compassion is another man’s unconcern.

Sportsmen, Bollywood stars, businessmen (though not all of these) have traditionally been the drumbeaters of the establishment, supporting whichever government is in power for pragmatic reasons. It is understandable but not admirable. When, during the Emergency in the 1970s, the singer Kishore Kumar refused to kowtow to a minister, he was banned from All India Radio and it was put about that he was persona non-grata. He survived, All India Radio survived, but the government didn’t.

So the sportsperson’s caution is explicable. It is better to err on the side of safety and security. But heroes must be made of sterner stuff…