Expectations on how top athletes must conduct themselves off the pitch have become ever more important to their employers and the public
Holding sports stars like Ben Stokes and Mohammed Shami to a higher moral standard is just asking to be deceived
In the finale of Season 6 of The West Wing, the eventual presidential nominee of the Democratic Party gives a rousing speech at the party's convention.
Matt Santos devotes a part of his address to justify a rival candidate’s decision not to disclose his wife’s unspecified medical condition while electioneering. He pushes back against opinion held by many of his own followers that such personal details should have been public knowledge.
“I don’t believe Governor Baker failed to disclose it because he was ashamed or embarrassed. I think he didn’t disclose it because we’re the hypocrites, not the Bakers. We all live lives of imperfection, and yet we cling to this fantasy that there’s this perfect life and that our leaders should embody it. But if we expect our leaders to live on some higher moral plain than the rest of us, well, we’re just asking to be deceived.”
Santos’s character, played by Jimmy Smits, may be fictitious but at the core of his speech lies a kernel of truth: we expect the world from our public figures. We assume that we own a part of them, that we are represented by them, our values are their values. And when they fail to meet our expectations, we judge them harshly, sometimes unfairly.
This is also true in the case of sports stars, especially in the age of social media.
The role of athletes is to play hard, entertain the viewing public and, hopefully, come away with a favourable result. But whatever they do with their private lives is their business, and they should not be held accountable for it.
Unfortunately, that line seems to have blurred in the eyes of the public, thanks to their accessibility in the digital age.
For instance, when some of Sri Lanka's most celebrated cricketers took to social media to denounce the religious riots that erupted on the island last month, some Indian supporters – not to mention members of the media – urged their sporting heroes to make similar condemnations of incidents of religious violence in their backyard.
Predictably, few players took up the challenge. And that is understandable.
Even the best abide by the theory that "you win some, you lose some" on the pitch. But trying to make every supporter happy with everything they do or say is a battle they know they cannot win. This is especially true in an increasingly polarised world where people, particularly social media users, tend to judge others on binary terms: you are with us or against us.
Interestingly, it is not just the public that is in the expectations game but also employers. Sporting bodies are now demanding that their players conduct themselves properly off the pitch, or face the consequences.
Take the case of English cricketer Ben Stokes, who will go on trial in the UK in August to face a charge of affray.
Stokes was dropped the same day the story about an incident outside a Bristol nightclub, from which two other men have also been charged with affray, broke last September.
While he is back in the side for now, there could potentially be serious ramifications for his international career if he is found guilty. He has already lost a sponsorship deal with sports equipment manufacturer New Balance worth an estimated £200,000 (a little more than Dh1 million). How England's sponsors would feel about Stokes wearing their brand will be a factor if he is convicted of a charge of violence.
Stokes deserves some sort of punishment from the England and Wales Cricket Board even if found not guilty, but would it not be a crying shame and a loss to cricket if this exciting all-rounder’s career was brought to an end over the incident?
Sample also the recent controversy surrounding the life of Mohammed Shami.
When the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced new player contracts last week, the fast bowler's name was omitted because a police complaint had been filed against him by his wife only a day earlier. The allegations of domestic violence and extra-marital affairs are no doubt very serious, but it seems Shami is already guilty in the court of the world's most powerful cricket board – until he can clear his name.
So the bottom-line is, it is no longer enough for sports stars to perform commendably on the pitch – as Stokes and Shami have in recent times – they must also be sanitised to look squeaky-clean and fit a certain mould that their employers deem suited to public tastes.
Perhaps it is the sacrifice they are expected to make for being role models, and in most cases for being well remunerated.
Now, this is not to say that our sporting heroes must not hold themselves to a higher standard, or strive to be role models in society. Indeed, they can help bring about change like the late American boxer Muhammad Ali did during his life. In fact, this writer would be thrilled to see the best of them partake in national conversations, highlight political and social issues, debate them, and bring clarity and consensus.
But there should be no obligation to do so.
Because by holding them to a standard higher than our own, expecting them to be our moral compasses and judging them for not matching our expectations, we are being unfair on them.
And like Santos says, we are hypocrites just asking to be deceived.
Symbols in sport: Save Gaza wristbands, Black Power salute and wearing poppy
National editorial: Don't lose sight of sport at Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang