A crying game: disgraced sports stars and public confessions

“I am very sorry.” Glum-faced Australian fast bowler Cameron Bancroft, who was last week spotted by the television cameras illegally tampering with the ball on the field of play with a yellow strip of sandpaper – an offence which has since prompted crisis in Australian cricket – gives a sombre statement to the world’s press. “I understand I have let many people down”, Bancroft continues, while his mother sits by his side (“if you’re ready Cam…”), and a man is reduced in all respects to a boy.

Profuse and gushing apology spreads. First, ex-Captain Steve Smith, ranked the no. 1 batsman in the world, battles through a watery-eyed apology, steadying himself through heaving sighs but ultimately failing to contain his tears. “It’s devastating and I’m truly sorry.” Behind Smith is the forbidding frame of a father offering his son a reassuring hand as he breaks down. Elsewhere, the white flashes of camera shutters illuminate former vice-captain David Warner’s tears as he chokes with remorse and his voice breaks: “I want to apologise to my family. Especially my wife and daughters”. Former Head Coach Darren Lehmann also offers an eye-wiping sermon, perhaps through sheer exhaustion more than anything else, as he announces that he is stepping down from his position. “…we are truly sorry”.

What is most striking about the current upheaval in Australian Cricket is its magnitude. Head Coach, Captain, Vice-Captain all taken out of the picture, all saying sorry, and saying it again. But the event of a disgraced sporting icon calling for the mercy of the public is nothing new.

Most famously, in February 2010, golfing superstar Tiger Woods delivered the most solemn of apologies in response to revelations about extra-marital affairs in Woods’ messy private life which surfaced in late 2009. Although Woods “cheated”, unlike the Australian cricketers, in a personal rather than sporting aspect, the register of his apology hit the same notes: “I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behaviour I engaged in […] I hurt my wife, my kids […] achievements on the golf course are only part of setting an example. Character and decency are what really count.”

Again, Maria Sharapova in 2016, after being tested positive for meldonium, a drug banned by the Tennis authorities: “I let my fans down. I let the sport down I have been playing since the age of four and I love so deeply.”

For the disgraced sports star, it is moral character which is scrutinised; their illicit actions, whether on or off the field of play, are expressed in personal as well as sporting terms. They address the public on an intimate level during these career-defining moments and become models not only of outstanding sporting technique and ability but of human character.

“They have made a grave mistake but they are not bad people.” Lehmann insists of the Australian cricketers, “Good people make mistakes”.

Though the pitiable public breakdowns the Smith, Warner and co. are very moving, they are not altogether shocking. It is usual, or even expected, for sportspersons, more so than in perhaps any other public profession, to exhibit their feeling and huge investment in the sport they love – to ‘wear their heart on their sleeve,’ as it were. Fans and followers in turn ride out the highs and lows with them.

This current outflow of emotion from Australian cricket, then, reflects in its own way the ability of sport to transcend its immediate competitive contexts and become a testing ground of human experience. The experience here is guilt; “They have made a grave mistake but they are not bad people.” Lehmann insists of the Australian cricketers, “Good people make mistakes” (emphasis mine).

We should in no way, of course, condone cheating in sport, and tears are not enough for these cricketers to atone for their crimes. However, we can and should recognise the people involved, the human beings beneath the tough competitive exteriors, in the way that sport uniquely invites us to.