Leading from the front: Dhoni speaking up on freedom of speech is a good precedent

Couple of tweets from an Indian cricketer caught my attention on Sunday. It was Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India’s captain in limited-over formats, holding forth on the ongoing freedom of expression debate in light of the recent developments at JNU.

The tweet merited attention because it is ever so rare for Indian cricket stars to step out of their bubble and join the public discourse.

One can speciously argue that Dhoni was tweeting as the honorary Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian army and not as the captain of the Indian team but the fact remains that he has set a positive precedent by speaking up. For me, what he said is not half as important as the fact that he took a stand on a debate that has polarised India, stuck his neck out instead of staying safe from controversy.

Leading from the front: Dhoni speaking up on freedom of speech is a good precedent

Mahendra Singh Dhoni during a media conference in Kolkata on Sunday. AFP

Maybe the Indian captain was bored with the questions regularly posed at him in media conferences. Just on Sunday, Dhoni spat out against a bevy of queries on his retirement and made it clear that asked about it at every platform will not change his plan to continue playing for a “considerable period” of time.

So perhaps the skipper took to the social media to express that which he feels strongly about but didn’t get the chance to air it since media “keeps on asking the same questions”?

Whatever the reason, I was thrilled to see the captain of India standing up for something he believed in.

While our cricket stars play for the nation, I have rarely seen them engage with the nation. They are influential public figures and must join the social and political discourse more often. We should hear their opinion on things beyond just batting and bowling changes and plans for the World Cup. They must go beyond posting holiday selfies.

However, to make this happen, the media must encourage them to do that by not blowing their statements out of proportion but give their opinion due respect and carry either side of the narrative.
Sport does not exist in a vacuum, it does not function in isolation from what is happening in the world.

So why must we be okay with our cricket superstars living in a vacuum? Sport mirrors society and it is more than just fun and games. It is just like any other aspect of culture and can be a powerful vehicle for both political and societal change.

They wield great influence and when they sit quietly, it tells the youth it is okay not to have an opinion. It is okay to continue existing in a bubble. It is okay to ‘not engage’.

Remember Jesse Owens’s refusal to do the Nazi salute at the 1936 Olympic Games? Or Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the army because of his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam war? Or of Billie Jean King fighting for women’s rights? Or American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos “Black power salute” at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics?

These athletes stood for something larger than just being good at their “job”. They had opinions and beliefs and were not afraid to voice them in front of the entire world. They changed political landscapes and made conversations about these issues mainstream.

We must encourage our cricketers to do the same. This is more about cricketers being engaged, responsible citizens with a voice and an opinion instead of millionaires secure in their own cozy world.

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Updated Date: Feb 23, 2016 08:56:43 IST

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