After the Ollie Robinson controversy unraveled last week, several cricketers have done – or will do — a deep dive into their Twitter account to delete tweets they may have put out in the past which would qualify as unsavory, intemperate and unpalatable today.
Some contentious tweets of a few other players have come into the public glare. So far, these are English players including record-breaking fast bowler Jimmy Anderson. But there is no reason to believe that several players from other countries would not be in a similar predicament and unsure of where their past indiscretions could lead them.
Robinson, who made a fine debut for England in the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s (in fact he was the team’s best performer, showing splendid all-round ability), was discovered to have made misogynistic and racist tweets eight or nine years back which boomeranged on him now and threatens his career.
The story of his past misdemeanours on social media came erupted into mainstream media almost at the same time he got his England cap. This was an entirely unexpected and unprecedented development and opened a Pandora’s box that has had the cricket world in a dither since. How does one tackle such a problem?
At this stage, it is pertinent to show some of Robinson’s tweets to understand the brouhaha around them. One tweet went, “My new Muslim friend is the bomb #wheeyyyy". Another read, “Guy next to me on the train definitely has Ebola!!". These are clearly racists tweets.
Robinson wasn’t discreet talking about women on social media either. “Remind me not to watch the boxing with a girl again #notaclue #shesboredalready cares about tamara ecclestone eyebrows #outsoon@Bex_Dixon", was one of his tweets that has caught attention. One other caustic tweet read, “Not going to lie a lot of girls need to get some class #getsome".
Of course, how offensive these tweets are depends on a person’s sensibilities about such issues, and his social milieu. There is a lot worse that goes on Twitter every day as everybody knows. It is worse where politics is concerned, yet not only restricted to the world’s second oldest profession.
However, that is no excuse. Sportspersons are acknowledged as role models in society and perforce carry the onus of being seen not just more talented and brilliant than the ordinary person, but also righteous and sensitive to issues that can cause fissures in society, between genders etc.
What would have passed off with a wink and a shrug in the past, in the `woke’ era, Robinson’s tweets were not only stupid, but were also seen to reflect on his essential character. That these tweets were put out so many years back became the crux of the debate: how much should a person be penalized for things said and done in the past?
In Robinson’s case, he immediately put out an unconditional apology when the story of his problem tweets surfaced, claiming he didn’t hold the same views now as when he was a teenager. He played the Lord’s Test under psychological duress, but did not let this affect his performance, which redounds to his cricket. The apology, however, earned him only temporary relief.
After the match, the England Cricket Board promptly suspended him from international cricket `pending investigation’ and sent him back to his county Sussex. Robinson had to miss the second Test against New Zealand currently underway at Edgbaston. Will he be back for the Test series against India? Who knows?
With the future uncertain and obviously affected by the unflattering attention he had attracted, the 27-year-old Robinson pulled out of county engagements too, saying he wanted to take a break and be with his family `after a difficult week’.
The Robinson saga polarised not just the cricket fraternity in England, but society at large. A fair number of people thought that action had to be taken against the player. An equal number, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson though the ECB’s action was `over the top’.
Frankly, this is not the first time, nor the first era in which such misdemeanours have happened. Taking only of racism, there are several irksome instances in the past: among them, Asian players being referred to as Gunga Din by English players, or the late Australian batsman Dean Jones, referring to Hashim Amla as a `terrorist’.
Jones, otherwise a genial man, was cracking a joke (believing he was off air in the commentary box) and had to suffer heavy punishment, being put into the deep freeze for a few years before his commentary career was revived. The English cricket establishment clearly seemed to be on the horns of a dilemma where Robinson is concerned.
On the one hand is its avowed position of zero tolerance for issues that are socially damaging like racism, sexism, bigotry. That position secured, what should be the quantum of punishment for an errant player is an issue that will vex cricket authorities across the world as it is difficult to assign value judgement to statements made in different societies and countries.
For argument’s sake, what might seem a racial slur in one country may not be taken as seriously in some others. A sexist comment might not invite the same opprobrium everywhere. After the Robinson episode, can some measure be found to give cricket authorities an actionable plan?
As mentioned, uniformity in such matters is difficult. To make a logical and fair assessment of a player’s culpability, the methodology I believe should be two-pronged. One, find out how old the player was when he started showing unacceptable behavior on social, and two, was the player guilty of posting unacceptable views consistently over a period of time.
For instance, if Robinson posted the offensive tweets when he was a teenager, but hasn’t done the same for the past several years, should be judged only on what he did and said when he was very young? People evolve, make mistakes, learn and become better individuals.
Mind you, there is no getting away from facing punishment for mistakes, however young. How much should the player pay is the question that seeks an answer.