Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul could not even say that they have been misquoted or misinterpreted, the standard escape route that most embrace when confronted by a severe backlash. With some obvious prodding by Karan Johar, they said things that have caused a massive storm that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) cannot ignore.
The outrage over the cricketers’ sexist and racist comments on Koffee With Karan has been such that even those who did not want to know what they said will have been inundated with information by now. Not surprisingly, the players, especially Pandya, have had to cop non-stop criticism for being brazen, immature and insensitive.
It is a shame that the players did not pause to think of the impact that they could cause with their comments. It is worse that they had not been advised to be careful on a show that has a reputation of its own. People have cringed at some of the questions and answers on the show and the players’ advisers should have been careful enough to warn the players to be mindful of their statements.
Pandya and Rahul must realise that even if public memory is short, Indian cricketers are different to entertainers from other walks of life, including those who shot black buck and spent time behind bars. The Indian fans hold athletes in general and cricket players in particular in such high esteem that they feel let down at the slightest hint of misdemeanour.
The players just needed to look back in time to know that cricketers around the world have faced public backlash for things as diverse as match-fixing, making obscene phone calls, sending lewd text messages and getting involved in brawls with the common people, to encapsulate a few. Athletes are not immune to a severe admonishment from the fans.
Cricketers can say that they did not ask to be picked as role models. But that would be a flippant argument. For the behaviour of those in public eye will always be judged. It is one thing to have a casual drawing room conversation and another to be so loose on a show aired across the country. If they wish to reap the benefits of fame, they must be on appropriate behaviour all the time.
After all, no matter which sport they embrace, athletes are ambassadors of the country and cannot afford to be frivolous or flippant on a public forum. Nor can they convey the impression, even with a casual comment, that the players are insensitive to issues raging in the society they live in. They cannot believe that their status as Indian cricketers gives them unbridled privileges.
Pandya and Rahul have to understand that they have harmed not only their own individual images but also that of the Indian team they are a part of. They have put their skipper, Virat Kohli, in a tricky situation where he has had to answer questions on whether the storm kicked up by the two players would have an impact on the spirit inside the dressing room.
Expectedly, the Indian captain said what the two players said on the TV show was their personal opinion and did not reflect the team’s ethos. Even he would know that the fans would have lost little time in extending the philosophies aired by the cricketers on the show to the Indian team at large. That damage control will be quite some exercise.
Of course, Kohli said the two players have realised the magnitude of what has happened, indicating that they have been hit hard and that they would understand that things have not gone right. But they will perhaps understand the full importance of it all when the BCCI imposes a sanction on them both. They will need to have time in solitude to reflect on their actions.
The Board cannot control how the cricketers speak in public when not with the team. But it cannot shy away from its responsibility of educating the players on the basics of public behaviour when they break into the Indian team. For it impacts many minds — young and old. At the moment, all it can do is to cite a breach of contract and contemplate action against the duo.
Yet, at the end of the day, Pandya and Rahul will have to pay a price for their indiscretion. Even if they are banned for a few games and fined, it will take a long time for the smear to wash away. They will have to bear the burden for a long time to come. And it will take them some doing to make people forget their transgression.
Above all, the players have let themselves and their families down.
Having said this, one cannot ignore the TV show host’s role in the episode that has left such a bad taste in the mouth. In the quest for eyeballs, Johar — and the two cricketers who were given permission to appear on his show — placed the Indian cricket team itself in such a vulnerable position.