The tragic beating of New Zealand cricketer Jesse Ryder sheds some light on how harsh fandom and the treatment of professional athletes needs to change, writes Dileep Premachandran.
Jesse Ryder and other sports stars are human beings, too
One paragraph from the New Zealand Herald's report is enough to make you wince. It quotes Emma-Louise Ferguson, a witness to the vicious attack that has left Jesse Ryder, a troubled-but-brilliant New Zealand batsman, in the hospital, fighting for his life.
"There didn't seem to be any argument or anything," she said. "They were just punching him, they had him on the ground and they were kicking him hard. It was unbelievably brutal. It was literally right outside the door of the bar."
Ryder made his limited-overs debut for New Zealand in February 2008 and won his first Test cap later the same year. Since then, he has played 18 Tests, 39 One-day internationals and 20 Twenty20s in a career punctuated by controversy and injury.
Less than a month after his first game for New Zealand, he cut his hand while trying to enter a toilet in a Christchurch bar. That required surgery and forced him out of the game for months.
He was also censured last year after turning up at training inebriated, and for an altercation with individuals inside a Napier bar. He hadn't played for New Zealand since that series, and arrived in India for the Indian Premier League last year with his manager and a psychologist.
Most of Ryder's problems can be traced back to a turbulent adolescence. His parents separated when he was small, and he was 14 when his father did a runner.
"Dad bounced when I was about 14; he just took off, man," he said in a newspaper interview a couple of years ago. "He just dropped me off at a mate's one day and said he'd see me in a week. He never came back.
"That's probably where that rebel streak and badness comes from. I just didn't have any boundaries once he left."
Ryder isn't the first cricketer to have issues with alcohol, and he won't be the last. To its credit, New Zealand Cricket has done what it can to help him, being firm and indulgent at different times. In return, Ryder repaid them with sporadic bursts of excellence, such as during a superb 201 against India in Napier in 2009. Regardless of the format, he could be a wonderfully fluent stroke-maker on his day.
By all accounts, this was an unprovoked assault and it raises myriad questions about the nature of modern-day fandom.
You only have to be on Twitter to see the kind of vile abuse to which many sportsmen are subjected. Most are sensible enough not to respond.
When some, taunted to the breaking point, actually do, it's they who get the bad press. Those who taunted them get away, scot-free.
There's a certain breed of fan that thinks following a team or a sport, or spending money on tickets for games, gives them a sense of entitlement. There's also the pathetic big-man culture that encourages some idiots to take a shot at someone famous, encouraged by equally drunk and stupid friends.
It happened to the Indian team in St Lucia, after they were eliminated from the World Twenty20 in 2010. The alleged brawl with fans that mocked them repeatedly made as many headlines as the team's exit. The finger pointing was entirely in the direction of the players, as if they weren't entitled to any down time after hours.
In India, infringement of personal space happens regularly. Most players are happy to oblige autograph hunters, but no one enjoys having a phone camera thrust in their face or a stranger's arm around their shoulder - often without so much as a "Please" or "May I"?
In the wake of the events in New Zealand, we'd do well to remember that sportspersons owe us nothing. Like most of us, they do a job. They get paid handsomely for it.
But we have no rights over their space or time.
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