Warning or example?

IS there a more charming poster boy in modern cricket than Shane Warne? What does he not have? Magic in his fingers. Millions in the bank.

IS there a more charming poster boy in modern cricket than Shane Warne? What does he not have? Magic in his fingers. Millions in the bank. Movie star good looks. A beautiful wife. Fancy cars. A place in the history of the game as one of Wisden's top five cricketers of the 20th century. The Aussie superstar does have everything.

Then again, is there one poster that you'd rather not see in your little son's bedroom? And is that Shane Warne's?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But few modern sportsmen — and certainly no cricketer — have inhabited such extremes as has Warne. He is both a role model and a black sheep, a glittering example and a shocking warning.

And Warne is just one the few superstars in the news, these days, for all the wrong reasons. Mike Tyson, never too far away from the courts, has filed for bankruptcy.

The most famous American basketball player after Michael Jordan, a handsome young man with multi million dollar contracts, Kobe Bryant, is standing trial for rape and Warne is, yet again, being accused of sending lewd text messages to a woman.

It would appear that somebody with a clear hatred for sport and its superstars is writing the script for the world of sport these days. For, in what seems a morality play without an end, a line of once-heroic figures, each a symbol of extraordinary sporting success, each an achiever of legendary proportions, has been summoned to the off-the-field stage into front of our disbelieving eyes and turned into erring, defeated pygmies.

The verdict is not out yet on Warne's latest case and Bryant should be deemed innocent until found to be otherwise by an American court. Yet, the pattern is alarming.

Perhaps in no other era in sport have so many megastars fallen from grace, or have just been merely embarrassed in some manner or the other as in the last 10 years. To be sure, Warne and Bryant and Tyson are not the first top sportsmen to fall from grace. From Ben Johnson and Diego Maradona in recent times to several others in the distant past, quite a few have been disgraced.

And the bigger they are, the harder the fall. If the sportsman in trouble plays a popular sport, then his failings are at once magnified.

That is why even Warne's mistakes and the publicity surrounding them do not compare on the Richter scale of sporting scandals with the Maradona affair or the Tyson case. For, cricket is played only by a handful of nations.

But the difference between eras gone by and the present one is that the media attention on sports and sportspersons is quite extraordinary now.

A big reason for this has to do with the influx of big money into sport. But there can be no doubt that the media has never in the past devoted quite as much attention to sport as it does now.

In high profile sports, and especially when it comes to popular personalities, the media puts everything in sharp focus, even the minutest of details. We know now exactly how many messages — and even how many words — Warne is alleged to have sent to this South African woman.

This also means the emphasis has shifted from the games and their technical aspects to personalities and colour, making it a kind of entertainment package for the readers/viewers.

All this, while turning stars into superstars and megastars, while making the good look great and the average look good, has also created a mass of sports fans craving for intimate details of sports stars/idols.

So, it stands to reason that if success is magnified, failure too will get the same treatment, no matter whether it is an on-field failure or an off-the-field failure.

As such, what would have created a minor stir in the media or among the public a half century ago — for instance, Warne's latest problems — is now turned into the media event of the year. In the event, if media saturation has gone a long way in enhancing a sports celebrity's earning capacity, then it has also brought with it a whole new dimension in terms of pressures.

For a sportsman, the line between public life and private life has vanished. The life of an erring superstar like Warne has become one big play, acted out in public, reviewed constantly in the media and judged at every turn by the public.

This apart, modern sport is played out far, far away — and much, much below — the late Baron de Coubertin's moral high ground.

And given the pedestal on which they are put, and given all the temptations that come with money and superstar status, it is hardly surprising that many of our sporting icons are, in fact, very, very fallible ordinary mortals.