“Don’t use it as an insult. There is nothing wrong with being gay.” These 13 words caught on the stump microphone have made Joe Root into an instant hero in some circles, and caused Shannon Gabriel to be referred to the match referee by the umpires, and subsequently banned.
We don’t know exactly what Gabriel said, but it is not difficult to guess. Going by Root's answer, there must have been some form of homophobic slur made towards the England captain. As we don’t know exactly what Gabriel said, it is impossible to comment sensibly on the severity of the punishment, but the fact that he was charged at all is interesting.
The incident brings up a number of questions.
Is there an element of cultural imperialism in the English public’s reaction to Gabriel’s sledge? Is this just a case of normal sledging (something that’s been an accepted part of the game for about as long as it has been played)? And would it still be an issue if the stump microphones were turned off between deliveries? Some of these questions are attempts to excuse Gabriel, others are attempts to enable that sort of behaviour. None should be accepted.
There is a natural human tendency to expect that our own cultural norms are universally accepted. That somehow the things that we think are acceptable are also acceptable for others, or that things that we think are unacceptable are unacceptable for others. That tendency has led to all sorts of cultural misunderstandings in lots of cultures, with things that seem perfectly appropriate to say or do for one group being quite offensive to another.
There was a situation recently where Sarfraz Ahmad received a ban for a comment that was clearly not intended to be offensive or racist, but when translated, sounded awful. Sarfraz was being judged by the standard of a South African, while what he said was coming from a background in Pakistan.
In Trinidad and Tobago (where Shannon Gabriel is from) and in most of the Caribbean islands that make up the West Indies, homosexual acts are illegal, and discrimination against people who are homosexual is enshrined in the law. There are exceptions in the region. For example, Montserrat passed a law banning hate speech towards homosexual people in 2010, but in the majority of the West Indies, the attitude towards homosexuality is much less permissive than that of Great Britain.
Is the reaction to Gabriel a case of English fans trying to impose their cultural values on to West Indian players who do not share the same cultural values, or is the criticism valid? It could be argued that anyone defending Gabriel is also trying to impose their own cultural values on to anyone who was offended. Telling people that they should be either not offended, or that they should get over it, is tantamount to telling them that their cultural expectations and values are unimportant.
There is a tension between the two, and it is one that the ICC have resolved well. The code of conduct includes an offence of “using language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting.” It does not necessarily need to be insulting to the person that it is directed to in order to be covered by this offense, but rather insulting in general.
The onus is placed on the speaker to control his or her speech, rather than on the hearer to not be offended. And that is exactly how it should be. The fact that Gabriel comes from a country where what he said would generally not be considered a problem is irrelevant. It is insulting somewhere, so therefore it is unacceptable. To try to explain it as cultural baggage is to ignore the fact that the comments aren’t made between friends. An international cricket match is by definition an international event, and Gabriel should have been more careful with what he said.
Sledging is a practice that attracts differences of opinions. What is said on the field has been reported on since as far back as the 1890s and was probably speculated on long before that. But where the line between acceptable and unacceptable lies is a shaky ground, leaping from one side to the other, depending on point of view and culture. Ramnaresh Sarwan’s response to Glenn McGrath’s borderline homophobic slur was considered fine by a lot of observers, but was deemed inappropriate by the Australians. Likewise the “monkeygate” incident of 2007/08 was a situation where there was a difference of opinion not only about what was said, but also how bad it would be if Harbhajan Singh really said what was alleged.Steve Waugh defined sledging as part of the art of mental disintegration. For him, good cricket involved breaking down an opponent mentally, and part of that included the way that his team talked to and about that opponent. It was not just something ancillary to the game, it was an essential part of play.
But that belief is not universal. Others are vocal in their belief that pressure should come from batting, bowling and fielding, not talking.
Either of the extreme positions probably do not sit well with most cricket fans. We expect a display of passion from the players. We want to see that the players are trying everything to win. But we want them to do it in a way that still remains sportsmanlike.
This may be a big ask of athletes who are fired up in the heat of battle, and tired from playing a day of cricket in the hot sun. But they need to be fit enough both physically and mentally that they can stay above the line of decency. Anyone who cannot do that, needs to work on that, rather than have their behaviour excused.
One possible approach to avoiding offense as advocated by Sanjay Manjrekar, is to turn off the stump microphones between deliveries. That way the players can say whatever they like, and it is up to the umpires to moderate, rather than involving a public who may hear snippets out of context.
The counter to this is that turning off the mics would effectively be enabling the worst behaviour, and that’s really not something that should happen. Both Gabriel and Sarfraz are likely to be somewhat surprised by the reaction that their comments have evoked, but that reaction is an essential part of the process of changing the culture of on-field behaviour.
Having the microphones on allows the public to feel closer to the action, and makes the product better. Allowing players to say things that they should not be saying anyway is hardly a good reason to do away with the extra public engagement. This behaviour needs to be dissuaded, not enabled, and just like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison, the fear of being heard is probably normally enough to moderate behaviour.
Cricket has always been a game that has existed with a tension between the best of sportsmanship and the worst of gamesmanship. The best and worst of human nature can be revealed through the game. The hope is that through being involved in cricket our humanity is enhanced, but that won’t happen by excusing and enabling inappropriate behaviour. In punishing Gabriel, the ICC have made a decision to move cricket in the right direction.