Cricket: Sexist and Homophobic Too?
Cricket still demands conformity to the norm
In the season of misogyny, another scandal of discrimination, isolation, and polarity rakes its ugly head. The backlash involving Australian cricketer James Faulkner is a throwback to the unaired whispers about sports dressing rooms being largely homophobic environments. For cricket, it broadens the unflattering angle of its narrow view of the uncommon, such as the role of women in sport both on and off the field.
For a sport struggling for a more inclusive identity, cricket has not been helped by matters driven largely by commerce, whether it’s the manner in which it portrays cricketers as celebrities without gold standards, as the Pandya and Rahul show exposed, or in its misleading portrayal of women even while claiming to promote gender parity.
James Faulkner grabbed headlines without being a part of the team, with his post on social media when he captioned a photo celebrating his birthday with the words “Birthday dinner with the boyfriend @robjubb and my mother Roslyn Carol Faulkner”. He added the hashtag “together for five years”.
There seemed to be little scope for misinterpretation and Faulkner’s own former teammates poured in their congratulations on the presumption that the Australian all-rounder had revealed that he was gay, becoming the first Australian cricketer to do so. Only Steven Davies, the former England wicketkeeper, had publicly revealed he was gay.
Glenn Maxwell wrote, “Great courage.” Shaun Tait’s message was, “Great courage, mate. Bet u feel better.”
Faulkner’s backtracking thereafter caused a whirlwind backlash: “There seems to be a misunderstanding about my post last night. I am not gay, however it has been fantastic to see the support from and for the LGBT community. Let’s never forget the love…”
Understandably, the angst over this post of Faulkner’s came from members of the queer community who did not take this kindly. Faulkner was called crass for making a “joke” such as this, if that was indeed his intention.
Worse still, at this point Cricket Australia rather bizarrely stepped in, at first calling it “a joke taken out of context” and then coming up with this statement. “His comment was made as a genuine reflection of his relationship with his business partner, best friend and housemate of five years.”
But Faulkner himself could have used any of the words Cricket Australia laid out in that statement. He did not. This is why there is the presumption that either Faulkner let out a secret and then for some reason decided to then redact it, or that he deliberately created the misdirection for some attention.
Cricket Australia’s stance that Faulkner “was not contacted for clarification before some outlets reported his Instagram post as an announcement of a homosexual relationship” is contradictory, because his Faulkner’s own dressing room compatriots and teammates had taken his words at face value.
If Cricket Australia stepping in to “defend” a player was eyebrow-raising enough (was it that much of an issue about a player’s sexual orientation?) the vitriol that followed was pungent. Former Aussies Rules player Jason Ball, came out with a scathing take on Faulkner, as did some other journalists in Australia, calling his style of making a joke about sexual orientation “puerile locker room behaviour”.
Cricket has long struggled to shed its elitist tag. It has not helped matters that in a regressive world, cricket continues to be run in the manner of incest, wherein outsiders are rarely welcomed into the big leagues and if they are, they’re left out in the cold without much opportunity to rise quickly through the ranks.
This applies not only to teams but also to the way cricketing institutions treat sensitive issues such as this. Take the case of how cricket treats women in sport.
With the Board of Control for Cricket in India and Cricket Australia at loggerheads over a scheduling tangle, Australia’s women cricketers and an exhibition tournament on the lines of the Indian Premier League are being used as pawns to settle scores. There is the spawning once more of the train of thought, as in the advent of Twenty20, about the introduction of the Hundred in England as being something for “women and children”. Raising hackles and heckles within its own straight, cismale ranks.
Closer to home, Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul’s crass conversations on a talk show hosted by Bollywood superdirector Karan Johar bordered on the unwatchable, particularly when the host himself asked lurid questions such as whether they “did it in their teammates’ room” to which they nodded in approval.
Even worse, the cricketers who criticised them were more worried about the image of their ilk rather than the worrisome portrayal of women. Pandya’s sexist comments about the women he “took to bed” and his rather race-ignorant comments when he referred to West Indies cricketers, showed that while cricketers have received an impetus in pay, they lack in social and moral skills by a mile.
Nor is this a new phenomenon; consider these words from Sunil Gavaskar’s autobiography Sunny Days: “To call the crowd a crowd in Kingston is a misnomer. It should be called a mob. The way they shrieked and howled every time Holding bowled was positively horrible. They encouraged him with shouts of ‘Kill him Maan’’, ‘Hit him Maan’, ‘Knock his head off Mike’. All this proved beyond doubt that these people still belonged to the jungles and forests instead of a civilized country.”
Nor is cricket’s brush with misogyny new. If Shane Warne’s sexts created problems to the point of his losing the opportunity to captain the Australian team, Chris Gayle’s controversial on-air propositioning of a woman journalist in Australia, Meg Laughlin, in the course of a Big Bash League match for the Melbourne Renegades in 2016 with the “don’t blush baby” comment only exposed Gayle’s previous behaviours that showed scant respect for women. That Gayle even got away with calling it “blown out of proportion” and apologising “if anyone was offended” shows how insincere and ignorant the whole exercise was.
Models and wannabe actresses cloaked as sports presenters looking for screen time and cheerleaders are part of the new landscape. At a time when Formula One racing has been forced to sit up and take cognisance of the changing roles of women by abandoning their concept of “grid girls”, the Indian Premier League is rife with misogyny and gender stereotyping.
As one broadcaster put it, bringing in women into sports to hold the mic by the ringside has had nothing to do with knowledge of the sport, but carries the explicit purpose of grabbing eyeballs in the name of “fresh faces”, “long legs” and “fun”.
For someone who began her career at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2003, it was not an easy ride with “dumb dolls” and “sexpots” becoming dubious terms attached to women in the name of “cricketainment”. The question “Do you want to be the next Mandira Bedi?” was not in reference to women breaking the glass ceiling as far as television cricket panels were concerned, but rather a patronising reference to the deliberate, attention-grabbing depiction of women. It was about being referred to as someone willing to shoulder noodle straps and be brave enough to appear ignorant on a panel where the men withheld their mockery or simply ignored the woman, so as not to embarrass or expose the lady for her obvious, ill-prepared venture in front of the camera as a sports presenter or anchor.
It was certainly not a time when women journalists could support such a proposition or applaud the effort, or the farcical claim that more women now watched cricket because of it.
While a change of television broadcasters in India has made cricket viewing less cringeworthy only very recently, unfortunately the game has evolved little between 2003 and 2019 when women are still the subject of objectification. That they are now blatantly willing to submit themselves to reinforcing gender stereotypes is rather disturbing because while the women may be laughing their way to the bank, they are doing little to raise the bar for the next generation to follow or even making it easy to break the barriers that exist.
While one would not expect uniformity where the women blend into the background, there is a reason why one does not see Anjum Chopra, India’s former cricketer with a great deal of poise and intelligence, not to mention strong, conservative, elegant pantsuits that understate her style and persona, much on Indian television screens or the IPL, while someone with the knowledge of the sport of Mayanti Langer can be and is sometimes her own worst enemy, leading to a delusional discussion about the role of women in sport.
A discussion that too often, even among antsy women journalists and writers, centres around who is taking her seriously where her choice of clothing is so glaring and obvious: sometimes as flabbergasting as the choice of loud, blinding baubles and a cape to go with outfits better suited to a cocktail evening than a television studio. As opposed to those of her male co-presenters, often former cricketers who are conservatively dressed in keeping with the genre of television programming.
A woman’s choice of clothing is nobody’s business, unless of course the objective behind it in such a commercial setting is so obvious, crass and jarring that it takes away from what she has to say, a problem not faced by the men on the panel in television studios and those holding the mic on cricket fields. This is what exposes the whole fallacy of incorporating gender parity into the sport.
Women like Chopra, Donna Symmonds or Allison Mitchell do not have to earn respect by such obvious subverting tactics, perpetuated by broadcasters and adhered to by ambitious women looking for an easy in. While there is an audience that eschews the acumen of the cricketer, the problem lies with the erroneous perception of broadcasters and organisers that such presentation will garner them numbers.
For decades, cricket has been the victim and inadvertent perpetuator of gender stereotypes. As if reinforcing the fact, while there is a superficial case for making the attempt to bridge the gap between the men’s and women’s sport, there has been a deliberate perpetuation of the very notions that women are not predisposed to understanding the nuances of the sport, let alone covering it.
Furthermore, if women do secure jobs previously considered the domain of men alone, they have either curried favour with the editor or are easy targets for their male superiors to act a little extra “nice” without appearing to transgress clear and explicit lines of appropriate behaviour at the workplace.
The reality is, that more than one women writer and journalist can recount as her experience the need to fight off incredulous stares or suspicion of one’s ability to be able to present the same quality of work, as if men are somehow predisposed to the job at birth, and also fend off unwanted comments and unbecoming lecherous behavior at times from men, on and off the field. That their male counterparts are able to get away with far less quality makes the matter even more offensive.
Ironically, while cricket is considered the male bastion in this godloving country, there is also a commercial aspect that men require to be lured towards the sport, and for that they need the lowest base gimmicks of scantily clad, foreign (read: exotic), white (almost always) cheerleaders turned misfit dancers shaking inanely to Bollywood tunes, not only in the stadiums but also, rather ridiculously, in the television studios far removed from the ground. And what is sacrilegious for an Indian cheerleader is par for the course if the women is foreign (read: western), white skinned and can gyrate, even if she’s cheering no one in particular.
What James Faulkner did with that his birthday captions not only kept him in the limelight (for all the wrong reasons) but rather poignantly, shed light on the confusion that surrounds the world of a sport that is less than accepting of anything other than conformity to the norm. A money-backed belief in catering to the lowest common denominator can be a pernicious environment for anyone looking to break the mould and still fit in.