Not just spectator cricket
Aniket Alam in these columns a few months back (‘The discipline of spectator sports’, The Post, March 21, 2007), had commented that spectator sport, by its competitive nature, disciplined viewers (who are not participants) into actions that are not necessarily driven by real political interests, but simulated from the passions toward the sport itself. This is precisely what has happened recently, as news reports tell us that Australian cricket enthusiasts (bloggers) have decided to pay Indian cricketers on the same coin as some Indian spectators who had used racial taunts against Andrew Symonds during the recent ODI series between India and Australia in India. Pictures showing spectators simulating monkey gestures as Andrew Symonds (who happened to be the man of the series for his splendid batting skills and performance) came on to bat in Mumbai and accusations of racist taunting by spectators in Vadodara have dominated news reports.
Racism in spectator sport is not a new or a less debated phenomenon. European football has its hands full with obnoxious racial treatment of African players in Spain, Italy and even in England. Several punitive administrative measures have been taken by the authorities to curb this menace. The current Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Chairman Michel Platini (a former footballing great himself) vowed to act tough against clubs that were lax in punishing spectators indulging in racist behaviour. The racist nuisance is not limited to spectators alone. Spanish coach Luis Aragones used racist vocabulary and taunts against French superstar Thierry Henry in order to ‘inspire’ Spanish player Jose Antonio Reyes (who was a teammate of Henry for the club Arsenal).
Cricket too has had its cup full of such nonsense. Darren Lehmann of Australia was banned for a few matches for his loud vulgar statement against Sri Lankan players. Brian Macmillan of South Africa had to publicly apologise for using a racist term, “coolie creeper” (which was a term widely used in South Africa those days), to describe a bowling delivery. Australian spectators in Perth were guilty of racist comments and noises against Makhaya Ntini of South Africa.
What has surprised cricket watchers is the behaviour of cricket fans in India. A country that was steadfast against apartheid in South Africa and was instrumental in the isolation of apartheid era South Africa from international sport competition, and a nation that was born through a struggle against ‘white’ colonialism, India seemed to be the last place for the existence of racism, especially during sport activities. Contrary to this image, however, the Indian cricket fans are as guilty of racist prejudice as other ‘white’ fans of other nations. West Indian cricketers, including stalwart performers of not-so-long ago, have long complained of racist taunting by Indian fans in cricket grounds. Comments by some West Indian cricketers that they “are not animals” show up the arrogance and venality of those who have shown racist prejudice against these cricketers.
What explains such behaviour toward visiting cricketers of the non-fair skin? Is it mere expression of hatred toward the other, the team that competes against your own? Or is there something more structural to this venality? In this writer’s opinion, there definitely is. Two levels of understanding are required to explain this phenomenon. The first level is that of the discipline of spectator sport itself, as pointed out by Aniket Alam. As spectators inculcate into themselves the ideology of victory and defeat superseding the real meaning of sport (heck, it is just a pastime!), and as spectator sport in countries such as ours invariably involve international competition and also as the dominant political norm is absorbed by the nature of sport watched, passions that drive such spectators take the form of ideologies such as nationalism. Victory or defeat is a matter of pride or shame for the ‘nation’, never mind the quality of play or skills on display. Operating from the unitary of nationalism and from the binary of win or loss, passions ignited in spectator sport always verge on the irrational. Therefore, for the ordinary spectator, the opposite team member is an enemy and he/she deserves contempt. This anger against the adversary is fuelled commercially, witness the commercial campaigns in Neo Sports (the official broadcaster of the recent series) openly featuring intimidating Australian comments about the Indian team.
The next level of understanding obtains from the existing mores of cultural norms that pervade a society. In India, for example, fairness and fair skins are virtues longed for, sustained by the dominant cultural norms. Crass commercialism has venerated this vice. Cosmetics promising ‘fair skin’ are lapped up by the public. Beauty is determined as and from the level of fairness and a certain degree of fitness and form, fairness however being the predeterminer. Drill this dominant cultural norm into the arena of spectator sport and one can notice the perverse form it takes. Players from the opposition teams (‘enemies’) are targeted for dark skins and gruff looks. It does not matter how well they perform with their skills or how elegantly or clinically they display their abilities on the field. Commercialism itself thrives on these tendencies. For a sample, one has to witness the commercial featuring a female cricket enthusiast using a ‘fairness’ cosmetic to gain confidence and rub shoulders with Kris Srikkanth as a fellow commentator. The ideologies inherent in spectator sport, the dominant cultural norms, constituting the two levels, thus work together in harmony to produce this travesty of retrogression.
Punitive measures against select spectators openly seen performing these egregious acts of hooliganism and racism are of course required. Grounds where these incidents reoccur could be threatened with non-staging of matches and it could be hoped that the fear of commercial loss could force organisers to be more stringent against the spectators, and the watchers themselves could be restrained owing to the same reason. Yet such measures are mere palliatives. The structural dimension inherent will not be cured so easily. The value of sport as a competitive pastime and as a spectacle of human abilities has to be restored. This part is not difficult as intra-national competition, encouragement for participative sport through youth development and support for rural activities can achieve it. Such a process has already been addressed conceptually by India’s sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, who also happens to be the local development and Panchayati Raj minister.
The other cultural aspect is a difficult problem to solve. Mindsets favouring irrational concepts such as fairness of skin will not vanish quickly, but there are enough counterexamples of pride in one’s self to disprove the credence of such concepts. Political movements privileging the under-class and subaltern culture have effectively countered dominant norms that set hierarchies based on irrational prejudices.
The day is not far off, hopefully, when participative sports devoid of dominance of regressive cultural norms rule the roost.
The writer, trained in engineering and in political science, works with the editorial team at Economic and Political Weekly, and is an avid follower of sports, political economy and the performing arts