A fairly high standard when it comes to the behaviour of professional athletes is something my regular readers will recognise. I feel that they have a social responsibility as role models.
I see crimes such as match fixing and doping as just that, crimes against the sport, stains that need to be expunged by strict enforcement of penalties. So, I think it fair to say that I am not soft on these things. But, I think that we can just as easily err in the other direction, and be too draconian in the way we follow up what punishments are applied to those who break sport's laws.
Lately, we have seen news of a number of players coming back after bans or suspension, such as Mohammed Amir back cranking up the pace again for Pakistan's national cricket team. He, like many others, has been greeted with a mixed welcome back, and people expressing reservations about his return—some of his own teammates initially refusing to play with him, and fans booing him.
Over the past decade or so we have seen sporting authorities moving away from treating sporting offenses as matters to be dealt with "in house". Instead, we have seen them treated as criminal matters—as an example, match fixing is prosecuted under civil law in India, not just as something to be penalised by the BCCI. This has meant that it is not only cricketers who fix matches that are punished, but the racketeers who profit off them can be swept up as well.
But, if like myself, you believe that when someone convicted of a crime has served their sentence they should not have it hanging around their neck for the rest of their life, the question becomes; why should we treat athletes any differently? Someone like Amir should have been banned—you can argue whether it should have been longer or shorter, but that's a discussion for another day. But, now that he has served his sentence, why shouldn't he be allowed to play again?
If we say that someone cannot go back to a law-abiding trade after they have served their sentence then we say that we do not value the concept of rehabilitation. If a criminal record stops someone from ever getting a job, how can we be surprised when they return to crime? This is no less true for sportspeople than for any other criminal.
Circumstances and Forgiveness
Of course, the law is not perfect. Sometimes people get away with things that the shouldn't, and sometimes people are hit with far harsher penalties than they deserve. I think that we need to take into account the circumstances of an offense when we decide how we feel about a sportsperson's return.
It doesn't make what he did okay—far from it, as so many young people were looking up to him—but I have far more sympathy for someone like Amir, a teenager from a poor family in an isolated village who must have found it easy to be seduced by the glittering promises of match fixing, than I do for his co-offender, Salman Butt, a well educated senior player.
I can understand why cycling fans may never forgive Lance Armstrong, someone who, over an extended period of time, systemically violated the laws and spirit of the sport that gave him so much. But, I feel sorry for the Essendon players who, through ignorance or being misled by people they should have been able to trust, broke football's anti-doping code.
All of these are crimes, and have to be punished, but—to me, at least—some are more forgivable than others.
Everyone loves a Redemption Story
The other factor that I think should be taken into account when an athlete returns, is repentance. With some, you feel like the only thing they are sorry for is that they got caught. But some seem to be genuinely remorseful and trying to make amends.
Chris Lewis, the English cricketer who was once given the wonderful nickname "the Prat without a Hat" after getting sun stroke (but was also an immensely talented player), was arrested for smuggling cocaine and served prison time. He is now back and involved with cricket, speaking to youth about the dangers of drugs.
Amir, too, seems truly sorry for his crimes and looks to be seeking to move on and be a better person. Shouldn't he be given the chance?
The Golden Rule
Sometimes we forget that professional athletes are people just like ourselves, who do stupid things and make mistakes. We need to extend to them the same forgiveness and compassion that we want extended to ourselves.
If I made a bad choice I wouldn't want it to haunt me for the rest of my life and stop me ever making something of myself. I would want a chance to redeem myself and make up for what I had done.
So, when it comes to someone like Amir, now that he has served his time, I am glad to see him back and I wish him all the best in turning his life around.
That way, everybody wins.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html