“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” These days Alexander Pope’s oft-quoted quip is applied to all manner of situations; its relevance is universal. Martin Luther-King applied the sentiment to the civil rights movement, as did Nelson Mandela, to an extraordinary degree. Forgiveness is central to most, if not all, religious texts too – the Bible and the Quran to name but two. However there are some acts, or crimes, where forgiveness appear that much harder, where the label is worn by the perpetrator indefinitely.
A paedophile is more roundly stigmatised than a murderer. Should a journalist be proven to have plagiarised, the label is enduring. So too, in sport, is the tag of ‘drug cheat’ or ‘match-fixer’. The sanctions for those convicted vary from bans of months, to years, and could even result in jail sentences. However the stigma remains forever; the indelible stain.
Last weekend, Mohammad Hafeez, the Pakistan batsman, reportedly turned down the opportunity to play for the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) franchise Chittagong Vikings because Mohammad Amir was in the side. Amir was banned alongside fellow Pakistani team-mates Salman Butt, the then captain, and Mohammad Asif in 2011 by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for their roles in spot-fixing during the England vs. Pakistan Lord’s Test in August 2010. Amir, just 18 at the time of the incident, was banned from cricket for five years.
He was also found guilty in a criminal trial at Southwark Crown Court in England of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and to accept corrupt payments. Amir, unlike the other two cricketers, submitted a guilty plea. After admitting the charges, he spent three months in a Dorset Young Offenders Institution and was released in February 2012, half way through his six-month sentence. In February this year, Amir was allowed to return to domestic club cricket seven months in advance of the expiration of his five-year international ban. The ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit’s (ACU) reasoning was that Amir had pleaded guilty from the beginning, had shown genuine remorse, and that he was a young cricketer at the time of the incident, bullied by his captain and senior colleagues.
‘It is about the image of Pakistan cricket’
“I cannot play with any player who has tarnished and brought a bad name to the country,” Hafeez toldESPNcricinfo, adding that his actions were not personally directed at Amir. “I am not against any individuals,” said Hafeez. “It is about the image of Pakistan cricket.” For Hafeez, the stigma of match-fixing is not just attached to those convicted, but to his country too, and it’s a hard image to shake.
On Saturday, these reservations appeared timely as Michael Vaughan, the former captain of the England cricket team, allegedly wrote a series of tweets – now deleted – questioning why the Pakistan cricket team collapsed so meekly to England in a one-day international. ‘3 run outs and a few iffy shots from Pakistan. Never seen that before!!’ Vaughan tweeted. ‘They must all think we are stupid.’
The rumours surrounding Pakistan’s performance forced the ICC to address the incident, reassuring fans that they should not “be too suspicious”.
When every poor Pakistan performance is followed by whispers and allegations, it is perhaps understandable that Hafeez would want all memory of any incident kept as far as possible away from his livelihood and passion. What, though, of Amir?
At the time Amir was just a teenager – a young bowler catapulted into the limelight of the world stage, acting under the guidance of his captain and another senior player. The education around the perils of match-fixing was not then what it is today. Amir erred. He was convicted and punished. He served his time and now is free to return to international cricket, that is the hand of the law – pragmatic and indiscriminating.
Gerard Elias QC, Chairman of the Cricket Discipline Commission (CDC) for the England and Wales Cricket Board, is uncompromising on the length and severity of Amir’s punishment, “The integrity of the sport and that of the spectator is so important that the message needs to be given quickly and clearly. I certainly would have been very uncomfortable if he had received very much less than in fact he did,” Elias, told the Sports Integrity Initiative. However, despite the hard line view on the sentence itself, Elias believes that once the law has played its course, it’s time to move on.
“I don’t forget that he was a young man in the international arena,” says Elias. “He was a younger man and maybe there will be a way back for him in due time.”
‘Society says you should be given a second chance’
Pakistan’s current Test captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, who was dismissed by an Amir delivery over the weekend while playing for an opposing team in the BPL, takes a similar stance to Elias. According to ESPNcricinfo, Misbah said Hafeez was “welcome to his personal opinion”, but was supportive of Amir’s inclusion in the BPL. Misbah reportedly cited this outing as an important measure of Amir’s performance against top-class players, hinting at the possibility of a return to international cricket in the near future.
“I think a better judge of that [whether Amir should be allowed to return to international cricket] is the ICC and PCB [Pakistan Cricket Board],” Misbah reportedly said. “And especially the audience, the supporters, they really need to decide.”
Geoffrey Boycott, another former England cricket captain never short of an opinion, was even more forthright than Misbah. “I’ve always believed in the rule of law,” Boycott told PakPassion.net. Despite questioning the length of the ban (“Their bans could have been longer.”), Boycott said, “Once they have served their sentence under the rule of law then society says you should be given a second chance. If you are going to give people a second chance then it has to be all-in. Nobody should hold anything against Mohammad Amir.”
Earlier this week the cricket journalist Freddie Wilde used the new Twitter function to put a poll out to his 24,000 followers. “Should Mohammad Amir be allowed to play international cricket again?” was the question. 892 votes came in. The result was clear; 62% voted yes.
From the comments, those that agreed Amir should return to international cricket often backed up their response with some reasoning – ‘he made a mistake and received punishment, now he should be forgiven’, or ‘he was still a kid when the match-fixing happened. It’s time to give him a second chance.’ Those that disagreed however, were often just an emphatic ‘no’ – an emotive response to an emotive topic.
Even now, a quick Google search reveals that many headlines precede Amir’s name with the words ‘tainted’, ‘shamed’ or ‘disgraced’. The public, the audience whose faith Gerard Elias QC is so adamant that we should protect, may on the whole be in favour of an Amir comeback, but the voice of dissent is strong.
The team factor
Everyone, of course, is entitled to an opinion, and what may be more of a concern to those at the PCB weighing up when, or if, to reintegrate Amir into the national team, is the question of team cohesion. On merit, Amir is producing the goods. He shone in the opening match of the BPL, taking career best figures of 4-30, including the wicket of Pakistan’s Test captain. Trust and camaraderie, however, are core values to any successful team. Even before Hafeez’ recent statement there were reports abound of Pakistani players complaining of Amir’s conduct and possible return, and that even Pakistan’s T20 captain Shahid Afridi ‘had made his feelings clear to the Board’ about allowing Amir back into the team.
Even if the PCB is satisfied with the ICC’s ACU finding that Amir had shown ‘true remorse’ and participated in all the body’s anti-corruption programs, the toll of a disunited and disgruntled team may outweigh anything else. In theory the rule of law may prevail, but in practice the story may be a whole lot different, and one that needs careful navigation.
It’s not just cricket
Match-fixing isn’t the only label that sticks in sport. Anyone who has ever served a ‘doping ban’ is – in the eyes of the public, and often proliferated by the media – a “drug cheat”, no matter the circumstances in which the violation arose.
Mike Morgan, Founding Partner of Morgan Sports Law LLP, in a recent article for the Sports Integrity Initiativeentitled ‘Demonising Justin Gatlin’, wrote about how Gatlin has been condemned by the media as a “two-time drugs cheat”, despite that fact that no tribunal has ever made any finding that Gatlin’s positive tests were due to any attempt to “cheat”. In fact, the tribunal in Gatlin’s first case was keen to emphasise that Gatlin was “certainly not a doper” and that he “neither cheated nor did he intend to cheat”. And yet, as noted by Morgan, ‘[a]ccording to just about every news outlet in the UK, Gatlin is a “two-time drug cheat”. The tag is used so routinely and so casually that it has become part of who Justin Gatlin is.’
Christine Ohuruogu has talked candidly of ‘journeying to hell and back’ as she endured the damning effects of a one-year doping ban. Not for doping per se, but under the strict confines of the World Anti-Doping Code, Ohuruogu missed three out-of-competition drug tests, after failing to be at the location she had specified in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS) – also known as the ‘whereabouts’ requirement. Regrettably, the brush is sweeping; anyone in reach of its stroke is tainted, no matter the circumstances. Ohuruogu, an Olympic and double World Champion and the first British female to win three global titles, will never be fêted to the degree that Jessica Ennis, Paula Radcliffe or Mo Farah have been. She will never be a British sweetheart.
The devil is in the detail
The problem, very often, is that the public do not delve past the headlines. It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than a small handful of lawyers have ever taken the trouble to actually read the entirety of the decisions rendered in Amir’s, Gatlin’s or Ohuruogu’s case. The public relies on the media to do that for them. Regrettably, the media is not always much better informed and so opinions can often end up being formed on the basis of headlines that rarely tell the whole story.
Something else that is often missing from the narrative, as Nigel Mawer, Chair of the Darts Regulation Authority (DRA), asserts, is that the key decision-maker in any scenario is almost never the sportsman themselves
Mawer ran the corruption enquiry regarding the Amir, Asif and Butt case when he was a Detective Chief Superintendent. He said that the main issue was that “all the money, £150,000, went to a guy that the ICC had no power over.” In that particular case, the fixer was prosecuted under criminal laws, but that rarely happens, “It’s very hard for the fixers themselves to get any sort of prosecution.”
And so while an athlete can easily be banned from participation, or thrown in jail, those instrumental in corrupting the athletes often escape punishment and all the publicity that goes with it. That invariably leaves the athlete to take the fall alone, both in the eyes of the law and the public.
Law is reason, free from passion
Circumstances, an athlete’s response to punishment, their remorse and a genuine effort at rehabilitation will all sway the public one way or another. Who should be welcomed back and who should be treated a pariah for evermore? This split heralds the question, “Where is the line?”. When do we forgive and move on? When do we not? The reality is that there is no clear line. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but these differ. Often these opinions are based on equally compelling but contrasting reasons. As individuals, as the public, we’ll never know where to draw that line; every situation is different. That’s why we have laws, rules and regulations. They provide some degree of certainty and finality. So if you are looking for a line, start there.
Amir has done his time – 4 years and 5 months of it, to be precise. Being labelled a “match-fixer” may be an inevitable consequence of what he did, but in the words of Geoffrey Boycott, “If you are going to give people a second chance then it has to be all-in. Nobody should hold anything against Mohammad Amir.”