Some news from my homeland, the land down under, Australia!
The conclusion of the second cricket test has left a bitter taste in many mouths not so much by the way India capitulated on the final day to lose a test which seemed destined for a draw and an end to the Australian pursuit of the all time consecutive wins record at 15, just one shy of the magical 16, but rather as a result of the subsequent suspension of Harbhajan Singh for a racist taunt against Andrew Symonds. Symonds alleges that Singh called him a monkey.
Now, calling someone a monkey in and of itself is not racist, but when the person being called a monkey is Australia's only black player then the question was almost certainly going to arise as to whether it was a racist taunt. But what about if Singh had called Ponting and Symonds a pair of monkeys would that have been racist?
There is a long history of racism associated with calling a black person a monkey. If you do not believe it, then a simple Google search with the right terms will enlighten you no end. The insinuation is that the person is a throwback to the apes, perhaps representative of the missing link, and it is undoubtedly derogatory and intended to offend. Human beings can be really offensive when they want to be.
If Singh called Symonds a monkey he should be punished for it. Is a 3 match ban the most appropriate form of punishment; maybe, maybe not. But even more appropriate would be for the offender to get some counselling and then be required to make public service announcements regarding the danger of racism. This would go to the fundamental goal of achieving a recognition that racism has no place in sport.
But what about more general forms of sledging and taking the piss out of your opponents. Unfortunately, the good ol' days of "ya mother wears army boots" are long gone. Insults of this nature just no longer cut the mustard. Yet, is the best course of action in the light of this fiasco to ban sledging altogether?
Back to the case at hand. I have read some interesting articles and attempts to justify and execute Singh for the alleged comment. It was heard supposedly by a number of people although Singh has strenuously denied he uttered the offending word. But the most interesting article I read related to the Hindi word for motherfucker (the debate on whether an insult, and it is an insult with sexist connotations, is offensive based on whether it is an adjective or a noun is a different debate and a different post, but for an excellent academic discussion on the use of "fuck" see this link) which is "Maa Ki" to an untrained Australian ear this may indeed sound like 'monkey'. So, should Singh be given the benefit of the doubt here? Perhaps and particularly so in light of his vehement denials that he used monkey.
Let's face it, motherfucker may not be racist but the connotation is clear and as such it is offensive. The difference here is it is not racist and as such would have seemingly attracted no ban (but see the next point on the counter claim relating to the use of the word bastard--this may attact a ban of up to 4 matches). Further, the fact that Singh has now been labelled a racist this is a tag that will follow him for the rest of his career and into his post-cricket life too. What happened on the field should have stayed on the field and been settled there as well. In this age of political correctness the Dons that rule our little worlds would never stand for it. Is Dons racist or something offensive...Dons is used here in the sense of the head honcho of a mafia outfit, The Don. My Ma tells a great story about going to a wedding in her youth where the bride and groom were both of Italian ancestry.
Keeping on the offensive theme. India has lodged a counter-claim against Brad Hodge that he used the term 'bastard' when addressing a couple of the Indian players. Bastard in the technical sense refers to a child born out of wedlock and initially was intended to offend. Overtime the term has lost much of its offensiveness and it is now used in a number of ways like 'you lucky bastard' to signal that someone has enjoyed a considerable bit of good fortune. For example, when Symonds was given not out after edging the ball and standing his ground, you could safely say you were a lucky bastard not to be given out. Unfortunately, for Brad Hogg he suggested he was going to run through you bastards, which simply means he intended to take the Indians wickets as cheaply as possible, has become a test of consistency for the Match Referee.
So, in a country or culture that does not look favourably on children born out of wedlock, then being a bastard is stigma that is particularly offensive. Australians are likely to argue that bastard is no longer an offensive term as it is used regularly. The Indians made a similar claim that in Indian culture the monkey is a revered creature, and it is a deity, and as such hardly offensive. This is perhaps an oversimplification and India would be better served to argue that Singh did not use a racist epithet but rather he called Symonds a motherfucker. I am not sure that I can see the overall distinction here on an offensiveness level but if someone thinks that the insult of one's mother is less offensive than racism on the offense scale then so be it. Let the powers that be explain that one!
Hopefully, this is a storm in a tea cup that over time will dissipate and be dispatched into the pages of history. Racism is a serious issue but there are too many questions about whether there is a sufficient preponderance of circumstantial evidence to convict and punish Singh for his alleged indiscretion.
The bigger issue in the long term was the preponderance of mistakes made by the umpires which had the impact of completely changing the outcome of the contest. This has given rise to an active debate as to how much technology should be allowed into the game. These are separate but related issues. Related because better microphone technology might have picked up the exchange between Singh and Symonds putting to rest once and for all the dispute as to whether he did or did not say it.
The optimist in me says that cricket and sport will be a better game for this experience.