Like most Englishmen, I tend to view American football as organised chaos. Skilful it may be, but when play commences it seems to be little more than a melee of grown men running in all directions without purpose or intention; nothing you couldn’t see at any railway station during the rush hour in fact.
No doubt Americans view the game of cricket with the same bemusement. But If I ever did play in the NFL, I’m confident I wouldn’t want to play for the Miami Dolphins, whose reputation has been badly tarnished by accusations of locker room bullying that have shed light on the often murky world of sporting machismo.
If there is one man whose surname belies his personality, it’s surely the Dolphin’s offensive lineman Richie Incognito. A player of fearsome aspect and incendiary temperament, he weighs in at 145kg and is covered in tattoos. In a career already pockmarked by controversy, he’s already been dubbed the second dirtiest player in the NFL: and that was before revelations broke this week of his harassment of a fellow Miami player, Jonathan Martin.
Martin, 24, himself is hardly a shrinking violet, yet has unexpectedly quit the team and checked into a local hospital suffering from emotional breakdown, and citing Incognito as his principal tormentor. Accusations include threatening voicemails, cruel pranks and sustained verbal intimidation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a very different sportsman is taking his leave. Sachin Tendulkar, widely acknowledged as the greatest batsman of his generation, is bowing out of international cricket. After a career as glittering as it was exemplary, next week in Mumbai he will play his final Test match. And India is in mourning.
I was in the famous old Long Room at Lord’s for Tendulkar’s first appearance there in 1990, when aged just 17, he made his way through the members on his way out to the crease. As he passed I recall my astonishment that somebody so young could possibly succeed at such an elevated level – he barely seemed old enough to be allowed out without a chaperone. Yet from the moment he scored his first run it was obvious that he was someone special.
Genius is a word too easily used in professional sport, yet Tendulkar genuinely deserves the appellation. The cricketer RC Robertson-Glasgow once described bowling to the great Jack Hobbs as like “bowling to God on concrete”, and in his pomp, the “Little Master” must have offered the same heartbreaking proposition.
Yet what marks him out as something remarkable is the way he has conducted himself both on and off the field.
Professional sportsmen often talk of “pressure”, yet few if any can ever have had to cope with the sort of adulation and expectation he has had to contend with. Revered throughout the subcontinent, each time he goes out to bat he carries the hopes of millions of cricket fans on his shoulders, while off the field, his private life has been severely compromised by his fame.
Throughout it all, he has remained the ideal of what a true sportsman should be: gracious, dignified and forbearing. He has somehow managed to avoid both the scandal and sleaze that seem to be the lot of so many sporting superstars nowadays. No wonder he was given the Padma Vibhushan Award, the nation’s second-highest civilian honour.
The conduct of the great man could not be more in contrast to the aforementioned Dolphins player fending off the news cameras in his Miami suburbs.
Incognito, who apparently regards his “dirtiest player’” award as something of a badge of honour, is currently suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team”; but as he sits at home and waits for the storm to blow over, he might do worse than tune into events in Mumbai next week to see for himself the profound effect an individual can make on a nation’s psyche when he combines his talents with a mature understanding of how a professional sportsman should behave.
Whether Incognito will be mourned when he finally hangs up his helmet is a matter of conjecture. Tendulkar’s final appearance on the field, however, is due to be marked with a shower of 199kg of rose petals – one for each of his caps. As Shakespeare would surely have written if he’d been up in the press box: “We shall not look upon his like again”.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London