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Suit up and SHUT UP!
by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
Nov 29, 2006
It is as though everybody forgot what their primary responsibilities are in the first place. Sportsmen are expected to opine about the events. Ex-players are expected to comment. Regular commentators are expected to forecast about the fortunes of the game. Coaches are expected to double for the players and win the games. And there is a new brand that has just joined the bandwagon - politicians, who are expected to reverse the fortunes, if the team is failing, and steady the course and stay by its side, till the team is well on its way towards some fortuituous glory. And the only ones left in the fray, are the people. However which way the tables have turned and the chips have fallen, people are expected of pretty much the same thing - gulp it up, and since this is the only category that lacks the mouthpiece, the forum or the voice, guess what else are they going to do. Much has changed with the sports in the psat few years following the abrasive invasion of the media - print, electronic and byte - into every facet of the game and every quarter and quadrant of it. It became a classic case of which is wagging what here - the tail or the dog? Probably sports is one such arena where the terms over-exposure, exploitation and brating to death do not mean the same as they do in the regular world. Immediately following a sporting event, every outlet expresses its opinion in the way it chooses fit with its target audience, and reactions thereby oscillate from one extreme to another, from muted to rambunctious, from reserved down right to outraged. Granted it is a free country and the freedom of expression and the choice associated with it rests equally among all the complaining segments, but the manner of expression of what is at contention here.

Before we begin the finger pointed exercise, let's step back a little and see how it came down to this. Sportsmen are used to be just that. They went into the arena and played their sport. Win and loss were accepted as part and parcel of the game and everyone (the players and the watchers) abided to the principle. Most of the times, with the same playing unit, a win resulted for as much the same reason as a loss occurred. On a given day, everything clicks in place and all the parts seem to move like well-lubricated machine. On a wretched day, things are just the opposite - the rust, the inertia and the clay feet. Just as it is in the regular world with regular people, there are good days and bad days. This was an accepted fact till not so long ago, when the first guy with a mike stopped the player heading into the dressing room and asked "WHY"...and that opened the flood gates. Unmindful of the fact, that the player was in fact only a player, and not an orator along the lines of a Megasthenes, everybody started hanging on every word out of his mouth, and began accepting it on face value, without the slightest consideration of objectivity - if you are too close to the trees, you cannot see the forest. That was the first nail or the final straw, depending on how you look at it. Whoever did the first interview waiting in the wings, or whoever decided on sending somebody with a mike down to the trenches, became the chief culprit for propelling sports into a different stratosphere altogether. Where once was great passion and genuine emotion, entertainment claimed its place. Suddenly sports people are expected to talk funny, make wisecracks and put the opposition down, all in an entertaining way. Historically speaking, the trend was started by Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer, and Howard Cosell, the highly popular broadcaster. Instead of commenting on the game as is the norm, Cosell pushed the mike infront of an already charged up pugilist and every word of Ali ("I am going to crush him like a bug", "he aint seen nothing yet") passed off as pretty funny, as pretty entertaining. And the stage was set...literally.

The second step in this sad evolution was when the player, after hanging up his boots, went straight into the broadvasting booth and picked up the mike. That moment that signified the blurring of the lines between broadcasting and blabbering, in the name of entertainment, spelled doom for the seriousness in sport. Players usually are presented with the best seat in the house, when playing a game - either on the field in the thick of things, or in their quarters inside strategizing about the game. They are uniquely advantaged as they are privy to the actual machinations of the game, that the rest, waiting outside, can only divine. However the challenge reamins, whether the player who has made it to commentary booth has the gift for the gab, to be able to translate the happenings on the field, process it through his player's privileges, and pass it down to the listener in a way that unique and never-heard before. Unfortunately the art of articulation is a boon to only a chosen few. So what do we have for the rest? A talk in cliches, a platter of platitudes, and a chatter of commonplaces. The glamor that is associated with the name if fast lost in a mix of trite and tripe. Case in point, listen to the commentary of a Arun Lal or a Siddhu. While the former covers it up in a pile of steaming tedium, the latter masks in a road-side show kind of exaggerations, expressions and cheap shots. When the players have taken up position previously occupied by professional commentators, they are expected to provide a little more than juggling acts and jumping through fires. Sadly, barring an exception here or an exceptional talent there, the experiment of morphing a player into a broadcaster, is still waiting for the payoff. It is quite mind-boggling, when the same player who has failed many a time on the field, steps up and casts the first stone, while standing on the other side of the line. The media outlets for the wont of talking heads to fill up airtime go out looking for anybody, particularly in the playing fraternity, to stand up, hold a mike and deliver his opinion. If they are stupid, it is entertainment, if they are valid and thought provoking, it is broadcasting. Either way, the media wins.

The latest casualty in the war of (stupid) words are the coaches. Particularly in cricket, the role of the coach on the playing field is as important as that of the appendix in the human body. The game has been without coaches for a good 20-25 years and suddenly now, a team without a coach is considered to be backward, out of touch and out of sync with the fast moving world. Coach became even more important than a player. A person who has faced the near impossible uphill task of rising above millions to stand alone at the top to make it into a team, is suddenly considered less important to somebody who wears the coach tag on the back. Just as a coach is undeservingly accorded the credit for the winning ways of the team, he is just as unjustly vilified for the downturn. Some games depend more on the performance than on the strategy. And the role of the coach in such situations end behind the sidelines, when the players take to the field. Calling for his head at times when the team is in doldrums does as much good as firing the towel boy of the team. The sheer ignorance of the talking heads about the nature and the vagaries of the game, causing them to target the only non-playing member of the team, talks as much about their intellect as it does about their understanding of the mechanics.

The tentacles of careless commentary has now reached the venerable halls of esteemed institutions - the Parliaments. Suddenly, the speaker of the house has something to say about a team's state of affairs. All of a sudden, the Prime Minister of a country has an opinion, when the bowler of a visiting team has a suspect action, that he wants to share with his colleagues in the august chambers. It became the need of the hour to talk about accountability and spend the tax-payers' monies discussing seriously about an issue that in only a national past time at best. It is indeed ironical that political figures talk about accountability in sports. Right from the closed door senate hearings about the steroid drug usage in Major League Baseball, to the calls of immediate suspension of the current Indian cricket coach, by the highest institutions responsible for public policy, all the clamor for accountability and transparency by the politicians makes people really proud of their representatives. But aren't their time, (our)money, energies better spent ,when the politicians go after the issues that would raise millions about poverty lines than worry about why the average of the certain players is dipping below the pass grade in a particular serious. What do you say, Mr. Kettle?

In the end, in any sphere of achievement, if maximum results could be produced by letting people do what they do best by not constantly butting into others' boundaries, then why not let players play, commentators comment, coaches coach, and politicians...well...
 
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