City City Bang Bang, Columns

The sacrifice of pawns

For once, it would seem that the BCCI has acted swiftly. The exemplary punishment meted out to the 5 offending players for indulging in spot-fixing and other corrupt practices is a clear signal being sent that the board is serious about cleaning up the game. The action has taken less than two months in coming after the sting was aired by a TV Channel, and has been arrived at after going through what seems like a reasonable process.

Or has it? it is interesting that this entire issue has been framed through the lens of spot-fixing whereas in fact only 2 out of the 5 players against whom action is being taken have been personally implicated in acts of spot-fixing. The others have made allegations that spot-fixing is prevalent but have not themselves participated in the same. The other irregularity revealed in the sting operation was the revelation by the players that they were paid over and above the agreed sum of Rs 30 lakhs by their franchisees in cash; something that has resulted in action being taken against the individuals in the name of ‘bringing disrepute to the game’ by virtue of their ‘loose talk and unsubstantiated bragging’. Interestingly, there is no mention in any of the reports as to whether the investigation looked into the charges and questioned the franchisees on this subject.

For the three players not implicated in spot-fixing, what they are in essence being punished for is in being caught on camera talking about what seem to the unwritten rules of the game. From the matter-of-fact manner in which they speak about the under-the-table component of their pay package, it would seem that this is standard practice. Given the power asymmetry that exists between the franchises and the players, it is the teams that would in all likelihood be driving this arrangement. Even if this is nothing but a few players exaggerating in order to get a better deal, enough suspicion had been raised for a full scale investigation to be carried out in the way franchises run their business given that questions about whether similar arrangements exist with senior players have been asked for some time now.

What seems like transparent and firm action against erring players does on closer examination seem like a potential cover-up. The strategy adopted seems to be to sacrifice the indefensible transgressions of minor players with spectacular flamboyance, club together a variety of offences under the label of spot-fixing so as to escape closer scrutiny, transfer the responsibility for any irregularity squarely on the players rather than the teams, and give a clear signal to everyone else in the system that talking about any wrong-doing will attract the strictest punishment. The idea that ‘loose’ talk about any corruption indulged in even in private (for that is what these conversations were) would result not in any investigation but in action against the person making the allegations is almost Orwellian in its elegant deviousness. The damage has been contained by focusing only on those that happened to figure in the sting, and by punishing those that point to larger irregularities by others, it has been sought to ensure that no one sees it fit to indulge in any ‘loose talk’.

By BCCI’s logic the game comes under disrepute when players talk about systemic corruption and are unable to provide evidence to back up their claims. Given that the players made whatever statements they did as part of private conversations, to put the burden of proving their allegations on them and punishing them for not doing so is a sign that the BCCI has no interest in knowing if there are deeper systemic issues involved. Worse, it raises the possibility that the board already knows; a possibility that can hardly be ruled out given the fact the people who run the board are often the same people that own franchises.

The action taken against the players is a red herring that serves to keep the focus away from deeper, systemic issues that the board faces. In spite of the indefensible conflict of interest that exists between holders of office and owners of commercial interests, the programme of vendetta that it indulges in, as in the case of denying payments to ex-players that are its critics, the endemic cronyism that results in unlikely alliances between different vested interests (think about the magical way in which political adversaries seem to get along in the BCCI, something that we simply do not see when it comes to managing the affairs of the nation in the Parliament ), the BCCI seems to be above any scrutiny.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy here lies in the corruption of the spirit. The new middle class finds itself morally adrift in a world where implicit new rules have taken the places of embedded old values. Everyone else seems to making a pile, and getting away with tip-toeing around the law as it is written, and the previous moral certitudes have given way to negotiable opportunities. When worth is measured primarily in terms of money, the line between the legitimate and the illegitimate becomes speculative and subject to a degree of relativism. For the young players, the IPL is like a moral minefield, a video game world full of easy opportunity and hidden pitfalls. With all the intense attention and the apparent adulation, with the dizzying rise to fame and the unimaginable sums of money that are spoken about so casually, the players find it difficult to figure that it is they who are being played. The erring young players must be held accountable for their actions, but the real guilt lies elsewhere. And it does not require a sting operation to figure out who must bear this responsibility.