Don’t we have a spirit of sportsmanship anymore?

Recently, fans abused Shubman Gill on social media and even targeted his sister and threatened sexual violence against her. All in all it was a low thing to do, which no real sports lover should ever indulge in

Everyone feels performance pressure. It does not matter what we do, whether we are students, housewives, pen pushers, babus, corporate slaves or head honchos, performance pressure is always there. And it’s more intense if one is a celebrity, like an actor or sportsperson where the expectations of the fan base are immense.

This burden of expectation is a thousand times worse if one is a cricketer in a cricket crazy nation like ours, where people literally worship legendary players like Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath, MS Dhoni, Rahul Dravid and Virat Kholi to name a few.

So, obviously, when cricketers, great or small, go out on the field to play they are stressed out like any normal human being facing immense performance pressure. That’s understood and to be expected. But what is not understood and expected is the added burden of worry for their own safety and that of their family that some “fans” have started placing on the shoulders of our sportsmen.    

The latest example of this boorish and unacceptable behaviour is the trolling of and threats to cricketer Shubman Gill and his sister Shahneel by some so-called fans. The nasty episode was triggered when the Gujarat Titans opening batter scored his second successive hundred that handed his team another victory in the Indian Premier League 2023. However, GT’s victory resulted in Virat Kohli-captained Royal Challengers Bangalore’s (RCB’s) exit from the tournament.

While the losing team accepted the loss gracefully and King Kohli even acknowledged Gill’s ton with an embrace post the match, the ouster of RCB from the tournament didn’t go down well with some fans, or maybe bookies. Fans began abusing Gill on social media and even targeted his sister and threatened sexual violence against her. All in all it was a distasteful and low thing to do, which no real sports lover should ever indulge in and which no sportsperson should ever be put through for just doing their job well or even badly on any given day.

Thankfully some fans came out strongly in defence of the duo who were facing a volley of abuse and called out the trollers and the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) chairperson Swati Maliwal, too, initiated action against the harassment of the cricketer and his sister.

In a tweet, Maliwal said, “Extremely shameful to see trollers abusing Shubman Gill’s sister just because the team they follow lost a match. Previously we had initiated action against people abusing Virat Kohli’s daughter. DCW will take action against all those who have abused Gill’s sister as well. This shall not be tolerated!” And it should not be tolerated too, because this sick targeting of sportspersons seems to be becoming a habit with us now, all thanks to the anonymity and facelessness of social media.

Not too long ago another hapless player became a victim of this festering intolerance when India lost the Asia Cup match with Pakistan. India pacer Arshdeep Singh dropped an easy catch against Pakistan in a keenly-fought match where emotions and tempers were running high because the fight was between the old arch-rivals. However, what happened after the match was worse. Angry “fans” tampered with his Wikipedia page, hurled abuses at him, called him a traitor and threw slurs like “Khalistani” at him just because he hails from a minority community. This could have happened to anyone, but more often than not on-field blunders of minority players are not easily forgotten or forgiven. People who trolled and abused Arshdeep failed to realize that he is just a 23-year-old who doesn’t have the eons of experience that the other players have. So, he dropped the catch. And we lost a match we would have liked to have won.

As an Indian, I can understand the sense of anger, disappointment and loss that all Indians felt. But just think of how much more terrible a youngster who was in a way responsible for his country losing a “mooch ki ladai with Pakistan” would be feeling after dropping that all-important catch! So why add to his woes by abusing and threatening him?

Thankfully, senior players, past and present, came out in support of Arshdeep and shamed the shamers and his parents stood by him and gave him solid support, as did some political parties. But things should not have come to such a pass and this kind of hatred would certainly have shaken his confidence and added to his on and off field stress.

This incident makes me wonder, what happened to our deep-rooted Indian traditions of tolerance and Ahimsa? We were never like this. In fact, when we were growing up it used to be a running joke during an India-Pakistan match that the Pakistani players have to do well because if they don’t they will be flogged as punishment in their own country.

When our sportsmen did not do well they were wrung out to dry by sports journalists but that used to be incisive, knowledgeable, constructive criticism as well as fixing responsibility and accountability.

It was not threats of personal harm to the sportspersons and their kin just because their performance was not to our liking or they belonged to a team we were not supporting.

However, slowly and surely this has been changing.  Over the years our sportsmen have been subjected to death threats and fear of physical harm to them and their loved ones for various reasons. Earlier, before the advent of social media, some cricketers had the windows of their houses broken. Now, our players are subjected to online trolling, bullying and threats.

 For instance, in November last year, the DCW chief had issued a notice to the Delhi Police asking them to take action against obscene messages targeting Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli’s family, including his daughter after his team lost a match.

In 2017, former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly got a death threat via letter at his home in Kolkata in which the offender had warned him not to attend a local college-level event.

Shockingly, months after MS Dhoni and his team won the cherished 2011 World Cup for India, he was threatened by Maoists. Even Rahul Dravid has been threatened by Maoists in the past. And it’s not just cricketers in India who get threatened, it’s a sick trend that is prevalent across all sports in India and all over the world.

For instance, Scottish shuttler Kirsty Gilmour shocked fans when she disclosed that she was receiving death and rape threats on social media from bookies and gamblers. However, Gilmour was just lifting the veil of the ugly reality of the lives of hundreds of sportspersons, no matter what sport they play or where they are.

I can’t even begin to imagine the mental state of the sportspersons because they have to be accessible to their fans while at the same time remaining safe. It must be nerve-wracking because you never know who is an adoring fan and who is out there in the crowd with evil intent!

Losing and winning are what sports is all about! Unfortunately, due to some intolerant fans and bookies playing sports has become dreadful and toxic. It has come to a point where sportspersons can’t just play for the love of the game, they have the consequences of losing or winning to worry about.

The weight of the expectation of an entire nation made a seasoned player like Virat Kohli feel down and lonely and sent him into depression. How much more is the weight of hatred or threats to family members on a youngster’s fragile shoulders? Did we stop to think of that before abusing and trolling Gill and his sister? Just because we have access to social media and the security of anonymity in most cases, we can spew hatred against anyone? When did we turn into trollers? Did the advent of social media and the anonymity it offers change our character so much? Or was it that we were always like this but we didn’t have an outlet then? It makes me wonder don’t we have a sportsman spirit anymore?