Is the distraction worth it? After another round of a clearly coordinated assault over social media, one can only wonder if the regurgitating athletes knew their meal in the first place. Amidst calls for conscience and invitations to feel the spine, the outrage and noise that followed the puppeteering on Twitter and elsewhere, we are once again left to wonder, who are the athletes that we adore? What do they stand for or do they? But then, after a thousand flagrant responses to each post, we perhaps need to wonder who are these fans or are they?
Even as the farmer protests continue to persist around the capital, a series of exchanges featuring international and Indian stars have drawn attention to the fragile relationships on social media. Wild praise one moment and wicked criticism the next underline the brittle nature of these interactions fuelled in turns by elation and outrage. The undulating waves of adulation and mockery may emerge from performances in the theatre of sport. But social media seems to have blurred the lines between stadia and the street, as the mood swings to the rhythmic thrust of every post published to the hallowed handles of successful athletes.
It is now all too obvious that social media has intensified the relationship between athletes and their voyeuristic fans. Technology has broken down barriers, offering experiences that were hard to imagine only a few years ago.
"It is great for the sport and the athlete," said a player, who did not wish to be named. "Social media is a valuable tool to raise the profile of both the sport and player. It's also the gateway to connect with our fans and followers. It is a tool to use our role in society to spread awareness and involve one and all in a dialogue together."
Athletes also use the medium to communicate with their fans, even if only to build a presence and buttress their brand. In exchange, the lines have blurred between real perspective and paid promotion. Athletes are performers, and it seems their performances stretch well beyond the boundaries of the sports arena.
Critics argue that the gloves are off when an athlete slides from art and commerce into the polity. And their criticism tends to boil over especially when athletes amplify scripted commentary. As it did, Wednesday evening, when several Indian stars took to Twitter and Instagram to rally for #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.
But the marriage between politics and sport isn't a new phenomenon. The birth of the marathon, the riveting Berlin performances of Jesse Owens, the nonchalant dissidence of Mohammed Ali – each of those iconic events were a dance between politics and sport. The unwavering stand of Naomi Osaka for the black lives matter movement signifies an inseparable relationship, one that has endured the passage of time. And each of those men and woman have received love and admiration for their courage and conviction.
As tenuous as the relationship between sport and politics might be, nothing could come in the way their cohabitation over several eventful decades. So, the political dalliances of our revered athletes on social media must not really shock us. After all, beyond the arc lights, they are as human as the rest of us. And are entitled their opinions and choices, without the sword of judgement hanging over their heads.
The plot thickens though when millions of ardent supporters notice that the actions of the men and women they revere may not come from a place of courage and conviction. In what appeared to be an apparent response to the probing series of tweets from stars such as Mia Khalifa, Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, a bunch of Indian athletes produced similar, identical perhaps, tweets into the evening on Wednesday. All of them lauded the farmers and called for an amicable resolution to the current situation around farmer protests.
Outrage followed them deep into the dark winter night. Some wondered how they muster so many hundreds without a spine. Others simply resorted to bringing imbecile and rude. The response to their response is just as important. As much as we hold the athlete to an imaginary standard constructed in our minds, is it not necessary to live by the same standard as fans?
"We have a certain responsibility towards society," said the player. "But I think there is no reason to judge an athlete solely over a tweet. We all are free to post what we want to on our social media pages. But I think to judge an athlete based on one tweet is unreasonable."
What does an athlete owe us? An honest performance to the best of their emotional, mental and physical abilities while representing the nation and the team. The fans are often paying consumers, and hence deserve a quality product or service in the form of an irrefutably committed effort on the field of sport. But are we the custodians of their political leanings? Do we even have to engage with them beyond the square?
Interestingly, it is the fans that are making the choice to contribute to the brand of an athlete by eagerly following their every move, providing the real estate needed for their commercial empires to flourish and blossom. Why dock them love and admiration for parts of their lives in which the athlete is perhaps as ordinary as your neighbour and me? Isn't it possible that the athlete is supreme on the field of their play while being an ordinary Joe with the rest of their lives?
In our idolatry, we are perhaps turning oblivious to the precious gift of imperfection. How hard is it to extend the same warmth with which we embrace imperfections in ourselves and our loved ones? Being on the outside, we perhaps have no idea about the pressures some of these players face to protect their careers and wellbeing.
At the root of our relationship with athletes is an admiration for their ability to stretch the envelope for human potential through hard work and perseverance. Their dance on the edge of excellence enthrals us and entertains us. That is something we could celebrate day after day. But expecting the athlete to conform to our own biases, political or otherwise, is perhaps more a reflection of our own fragile moorings, as much as they might be for the star.
And in the end, who do we serve by projecting our aspirations to the athletes we admire? Everything they owe us is no more than an honest performance for the privilege of representing the country. Any expectation beyond that threatens to deprive us an instinctual pleasure drawn from watching the best at play. Is it worth the distraction?
(Disclaimer: The opinion is of the author and not that of the organization.)