09 October 2018

Sportsmen and Sportswomen Beware!


Some get caught, some don't, but those who do the hanky panky know they've done it

When did cheating begin? When did ethics go down the tube? What happened to sportsmanship? When did ‘play up, play up and play the game’ go out of fashion? 

Some may have heard of the last two lines of ‘Alumnus Football,’ a poem by Grantland Rice, an early 19th century sportswriter from the USA:

For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name,
He marks — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game. 

Who first gave the finger to that elegant line? We don’t know the answers to these questions. All we can safely say is that when the first rule was made, written or unwritten, breaking it was scripted into the narrative. Some broke, some bent, some crept through loopholes and when they were noticed and plugged found others through which they could get to the other side. The other side, ladies and gentlemen, is a country called Personal Gain where honor, dignity, team, teammates and everything that is wholesome in sports are outlawed.

Now there are people who talk about the ‘good old days’ but the truth is that bad things did happen even back then. There were old boys’ clubs and old girls’ clubs that covered up. There were scapegoats. There was naming and shaming as well as hushing up. The uncomfortable was swept under the carpet, hard drives so to speak were erased. It happened in government, colonial projects, corporates, councils, boards and sports arenas. 

It still happens. There were bookies, punters and match-fixers, then as now. The motive then as now, was bucks and prestige; the amounts were less and the mechanisms of scrutiny were poorer back then. So let’s not kid ourselves about a glorious past where the ‘money-motive’ was absent. 

The existence of hanky-panky does not mean, however, that we ignore it. There are measures that can be taken. There are preventive mechanisms, there are punishments that can be meted out.  In this the authorities have a key role to play and so do fans who want clean and fair competition. Perhaps the biggest burden lies on the shoulders of the sportspersons themselves. 

It cannot be easy. There will be selectors, coaches and administrators who play favorites. There will be a ninety nine shortcuts, all of them shady, and one path of clarity which might be longer than patience can suffer.  It is human to be tempted, and yet it is not inhuman to resist. That is what makes the difference. 

Rice, for example, defended the right of football players to make a living as professionals, but was resolute in objecting to they way money dominates sports to the point that ethics gets footnoted or scripted out of the equation. 

He observed all this thus:

"Money to the left of them and money to the right
Money everywhere they turn from morning to the night
Only two things count at all from mountain to the sea
Part of it's percentage, and the rest is guarantee”

And yet, Rice insisted that men and women can rise above all this. They are the heroes, their heroics keep sports alive in ways that money just cannot. We all remember how Tamim Iqbal, came back to bat, cast on his left wrist fractured by a vicious delivery from Suranga Lakmal. We saw this opener turned last-man stood tall helped Bangladesh push the score from 229 to 261. People still remember Anil Kumble bowling with a broken jaw in Antiqua and Graeme Smith’s one-handed battle at the SCG in 2009, and of course Murali; taunted, vilified and no-balled, smiling through it all. 

Rice in fact celebrated such things. The first two lines of the well-known verse read thus:

Keep coming back — and though the world may romp across you spine —
Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line

To go back to ‘the good old days’ if one was halfway smart one could get away with most things. Today, money will bail you out, but then again you are always on camera and you never can tell who has crept into your laptop, tab or smart phone. There are benefits and there are costs. If you err on ethics you can err on anything else. You can twist the rules but you can also trip or be made to trip. 

In a world where there are grandmasters of hacking even as there are code-writing wizards, perhaps it’s good to look to the end, respice finem  as the Trinity motto goes.  The question is simple: where do you want to be at game’s end. Standing or cowering or slinking away into the dusk? Do you want to be a by-hook-or-by-crook victor? Would you rather be able to stand ramrod straight at the end of the day’s play, with the right to be humble in victory and unbowed though gracious in defeat?

Rice got it right. He didn’t elaborate on the identity but it’s clear that ‘The Great Scorer’  is  unpretentious and nevertheless extremely powerful. The Great Scorer can have many names. Conscience — a name as good as any other. That cannot be hacked, friends.

This is the 2nd in a series of articles published in the SUNDAY MORNING newspaper under the heading 'Interception'

Also read:
The importing mania in school cricket