Sports and politics have cozied up for ages.
There are a worrying number of folded-hand emojis on the timelines of our sporting stars. We at The Indian Express sports desk, as part of our annual exercise to summarise the year gone by, did a social media forensic of the 2019’s top performers. The idea was to revisit the ebbs and flows of the country’s sporting stalwarts and audit the conversations they were having with their followers, mostly young adults for whom social media is the sole source of news and knowledge.
As expected, narcissism and bragging — the two human traits getting increasing acceptability in the new world — monopolised these famous handles. Envy-inducing selfies, filter-enhanced down-time pictures, those many “best-meal-ever” frames and the thick bunch of professionally-shot candid shots from exotic vacations got shared with religious regularity. There was also a generous sprinkle of the mandatory promotional tweets and posts for monetary gains. So far so good. It was just the nation’s brightest acting their age.
The first unsettling finding of this intense social media scrutiny is the growing proximity of these sporting icons to the political class, and an overwhelming folded-hands endorsement of their policies, stands and speeches. While the high-value present day cricketers have been subtle in their sycophancy, the unabashed obeisance of the olympians — totally dependent on the sports ministry for their funding and training — is almost theatrical.
Sports and politics have cozied up for ages. Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, Vajpayee — none missed a chance to be in a frame that had an athlete with a medal around his neck or a cricketer with a cup. With time, the political class became greedy and pushy. What were once requests started to sound like orders. Social media has been the game-changer, or the spoilsport. These days, no one calls the multiple-brand endorsing sports stars “walking billboards”. That’s so ’90s. They have evolved into a more dynamic avatar. They are influencers. Their reach is much wider now. Virat Kohli has three times more twitter followers than the official BJP handle and six times more than the Congress account. You get the scale now and understand why politicians are piggybacking on them.
The year 2019 saw an exponential increase in the political content of the country’s most-followed sportspersons. Each and every sporting high of India, anywhere in the world, triggered a scramble among politicians to be in the same frame as the winner or at least tag their best wishes to them. The incentive to be on those much-followed timelines was tempting. Even the most unsporting of leaders were magically transformed into fanboys on days India won medals. The athletes mostly obliged. The folded-hands-retweets of stars to acknowledge the VVIP congratulations was civility. But, inserting the same folded hands emoji inside some ill-disguised fawning tweet to celebrate an inane government statement exposed the servility. Even that wasn’t too bad. It was the all-too-familiar flattery. Old fashioned mutual back-scratching was getting a new form.
The most appalling, and alarming social media trend in 2019 was the “copy-cat” posts. Around Diwali, at least six of the country’s top sportswomen had exactly the same reaction to one particular government scheme for women. In an incredible coincidence, that is likely to occur once in a million lightyears, they all tweeted in unison: “I thank @narendramodi for his initiative to honour and empower women this Diwali. Acknowledgement motivates us to work harder and make India proud. #bharatkilaxmi”.
A few days later, some Indian cricketers, retired and regulars, once again showing snickering synchronicity, criticised Imran Khan’s UN speech. Once again, there were identical posts, word for word, right down to the last full stop and hashtag. When questioned, the cricketers got defensive. Before taking a firm promise of never-ever attributing their quotes to them, they spoke about repeated calls from the nation’s capital goading them to say things they didn’t want or meant to. This wasn’t true of all, not everyone was a reluctant mouthpiece. There were those who were more eager to get co-opted than the government’s desire to co-opt them. They had their reasons. However short-lived, submissiveness to orders of the high and mighty does bring a sense of security.
Finally, it can be said, this wasn’t kosher. It was scary. More so since the country’s three most popular sports — cricket, badminton and wrestling — are now under the control of the ruling party that has a very active social media department to push its agenda and ideology. These irresponsible cut-paste tweets weren’t merely a subject of memes, but ominous signs of a deeper malice. A shoutout by the influencer had the power to provide a cloak of credibility to a rumour, a half-truth, and even a brazen lie. Once an influencer is suitably influenced, the job’s done. Within minutes of a celebrity’s post, the loyal army of digital natives — those with no recollection of the pre-internet era and for whom libraries are museums that display books — took over. These followers would dutifully carry the message far and wide, getting it to “trend” and making it go “viral”. Since Gen X banks on news from platforms that aren’t known for their reporting rigour or legacy of integrity, the age of misinformation is right there, waiting at our doorsteps.
The most heart-breaking aspect of this gloomy forecast is the role played by sporting role models in this. But then, can they be blamed? The US basketball superstar, Charles Barkley, famously said, players never signed up to live a perfect life that others would aspire to emulate. “I am not a role model. Just because I can dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” he had said. It was a cool line, but it didn’t sound right. Weren’t we told that sports was meant to showcase all that was transcendent and inspirational about the human spirit? Maybe it wasn’t true. It was all an illusion. There comes a moment in every fan’s life when that myth shatters.
Mine came pretty early while covering the inter-railway athletics meet. Among the participants was an Asiad medalist whom I had diligently followed since school. On the final day, inspired by the athletes, the VIPs on dais, all railway executives, floated the idea of a 100-metre dash of their own. The dignitaries, in formals, lined up at the start, after taking off their shinning leather shoes. The sports-quota athletes fussed around their bosses. As the race ended, I saw my childhood hero running towards the finish line with a pair of shining leather shoes in his hands. He would later stand with folded hands, praising the chief for his exhaustive effort on the track. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. That disconcerting image has stayed with me. These days, scrolling down the famous timelines is gut-wrenching. The emojis remind me of the folded hands that held those shining leather shoes.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 13, 2020 under the title 'Stars and tripe'. Write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.