When Kobe Bryant died on January 26, 2020, there was a huge outpouring of emotion. Everyone sang praises about his contribution to basketball; everyone spoke fondly about his roles as a dedicated player for the Los Angeles Lakers, a charming husband and a model father. The shock of his sudden death in a helicopter crash, coupled with the fact that his daughter Gianna died in the same crash, evoked—and still evokes—widespread sympathy and a flood of tributes from people across the globe, including Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, et al.
Along the way, however, a few people also remarked on social media about the case that he had been involved in the rape of a 19-year-old hotel maid. Actor Evan Rachel Wood wrote, “What has happened is tragic. I am heartbroken for Kobe’s family. He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of these truths can exist simultaneously.” A clear message was emanating from the deluge of grief on social media: yes, Bryant was a global icon who enjoyed tremendous goodwill and enormous love from an entire city, but could death absolve him of his past wrongdoings?
Another famous example is that of the golfer Tiger Woods. Since 1998, Woods had enjoyed a dream run of sorts at the PGA Tour, winning multiple editions of the Augusta Masters and the US Open tournaments. He was loved and cherished by a bevy of fans, as much as he was respected by his critics and rivals. But one day, he crashed his car into a tree while he was inebriated, and the rest is scandalous history: proven cases of adultery broke up his marriage with Erin Nordegren, and he went to rehab. His professional form suffered as a result, and he lost all his brand endorsements practically overnight.
Then, in 2016, when he started recovering from this slump, he suffered from back problems, and later, underwent several surgeries. Everyone wrote him off as a failure—the scary part was that Woods himself believed this. And yet, it took immense resolve and fortitude for Woods to get back to winning ways, which culminated in his win at the Augusta Masters 2019 tournament, which The Guardian dubbed “the comeback of the year”.
The darling of the fans was back, and golf seems to have forgiven him for his past indiscretions.
This brings up an immediate question: Sport is unforgiving and cruel enough, but the people who play them are human beings too, just like us. What are the yardsticks people use for judging sportspersons?
The clear answer: there is no pre-defined yardstick.
One of the banes of celebrity culture is that people love gossip. Sitting in their drawing-rooms, offices and cafes, or even tapping away on their smartphones, people love to pontificate about what their beloved idols should do, and what they would’ve done. Never mind the fact that their “incisive” opinions about how the game should be played would put the Harsha Bhogles and the Vijay Amritrajs of the world to shame.
Perhaps, nothing exemplifies this behaviour more than our attitude towards the cricketers representing India at the international level. Never mind how Kohli and his boys are performing in overseas conditions: the predatory nature of celebrity culture means that we, the so-called “cricket-lovers”, have already put them on a pedestal of supposed fame and virtue, even before they have set foot on the pitch. Perhaps, it has something to do with how cricket is viewed as a lucrative profession, and the propensity of the society to assume that a person can do anything on his own as long as he is making all the right noise.
But I’m digressing here. The celebrity culture is complicated because it makes us envy the people who succeed in competitive sport. The problem, however, begins, when criticism about a person’s sporting achievements spills over into comments about that person’s personal life. Yes, this is a fine line, and in celebrity culture, this line can often appear blurred, but the question is, should it be crossed?
Take, for example, the case of Shane Warne, the former Australian cricketer. Can he be considered a legend in his sport? Of course, because taking over 1000 wickets collectively in both Test and one–day international cricket is not child’s play. Could he be considered a moral icon too? That is tricky terrain. Warne’s personal life is a chequered one, but it is not totally dark. To add to that, he has also contributed to various charitable causes.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest pleasures society takes in this age of celebrity culture is to consume, with relish, the fall of a sportsman from grace. After all, people need something to talk about in their drawing-rooms and offices. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, is the maniacal love bordering on hagiography.
We have succeeded in dehumanizing our sportsmen to such an extent that we don’t even see them as human beings anymore; we see them as commodities. And when they act in their own self-interest and supposedly “ignore” us, we feel cheated and aggrieved.
But, frankly speaking, it is possible to celebrate the sporting legend, while also deriding the cheats. For instance, the doping charges may have made the world look at Lance Armstrong in a different light, but it cannot take away anything from the enormity of his cycling exploits. Celebrate him for his wins in the Tour de France, but criticize his doping habits.
Perhaps now is a good time to pause and reflect on what we want from our consumption of sport. Do we want to place faith in a great game, or in those who play it?
As Bryant’s case indicates, people fall over each other in order to extol a person’s exploits on the field, but they remain strangely silent on that person’s misdemeanours in his personal life. It’s almost as if a death is supposed to act as a can of white paint, cancelling out all the horror, leaving only the successes intact. So, where is the line to be drawn between praising an athlete and censuring him? And who is going to see that the line isn’t crossed?
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