Spot fixation – not spot fixing – is the real problem.
Chase after money and security
And your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
And you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
– Lao Tzu
The arrest of three cricketers for spot fixing, the involvement of several IPL team owners in illegal betting, the possible complicity of top cricket officials and even top cricketers – all these have brought the specter of corruption in cricket back in the headlines.
The media is flooded with articles about what went wrong and how it can be set right. We obviously need greater transparency within the administration of cricket. However, that preoccupation can cause us to overlook a greater malaise afflicting not just cricket but our culture at large. The current spot fixing scandal is just one symptom of that deeper rot. That malaise is spot fixation – our obsession with one spot of reality as if it were all of reality.
To understand this, let’s look at the role of sports in the broader human culture. Sports has historically been a popular form of recreation, offering a welcome break from the monotony of life. Spectator sports take this recreational role to a more socially visible and culturally glamorous level – a set of talented and dedicated athletes perform in front of a general public that seeks pleasure in the competitive exhibition of human excellence. When players hit a sixer in cricket or a home run in baseball, spectators cheer their expertise in doing the extraordinary. The players in turn seek honor for themselves and their social groups – clubs, states, countries – in their pursuit of excellence and the opportunity to display it in the limelight. When the players play to the best of their capacity, spectators pay for the resulting entertainment, and players and owners benefit. But when players underperform to earn a quick buck through match-fixing of any sort, they rob spectator sports of its defining attraction – the exhibition of excellence.
The question is not Why? but Why not?
What causes players to indulge in such underhanded practices? It’s greed, no doubt. But we need to question the rationale for the players’ greed: “When they can earn so much by playing well, why do they need to cheat to earn more?” That brings us to a more disconcerting question that our culture presents before all of us – although covertly: “Why not?” In a culture that frequently equates our net-worth with our self-worth, what else can we expect? When so many people all around are giving in to the lure of lucre, it’s sadly natural that the players will be vulnerable to temptation too.
And some forms of sports increase this vulnerability all the more. In his book, “Gambler, Bookie, Fixer, Spy: A Journey into Cricket’s Underworld,” author Ed Hawkins explains how T20 leagues such as the ICL and the IPL are ideal breeding grounds for fixing. When players have no core connection or lasting loyalty to their franchise, when they fly in for a few months and then fly out to play for someone else, when the results of the matches don’t matter in the larger scheme of cricket, then the question “why not?” becomes far more unanswerable than when they are playing for their national sides.
League sports is no doubt more vulnerable, but the rot runs much deeper. The cultural obsession with money doesn’t spare players who represent their national sides either. For evidence, we need to look no further than the Pakistan cricketers fixing a match with England a few years ago.
The real problem is not just that a few cricketers have been arrested for unethical actions or that some more, maybe many more, cricketers might be similarly involved. The real problem is that our culture has, one by one, denuded the various reason for acting ethically.
What is it that makes people act ethically? It is respect for the higher values of life. A respect that comes from seeing the big picture, a respect that comes from understanding success in life is determined by more than the figures in our bank account.
The monetary spot-fixation of people, cricketers included, is the ugly root of which the current spot fixing scandal is one distasteful fruit.
Actually, the problem is far graver than even the erosion of values in our culture. It extends to the diminution of the value of values. Though people do much window-dressing about the importance of values in their public posturing, many no longer care deeply about them in their actual conduct Because for many life itself has been dumbed down to watching the sort of show business that is now mistaken for real life.
Let’s understand how.
People have always been willing to pay to be entertained, but the crass commercialization of sports has few parallels in world history. If a resident of the ancient world were transported to our times, that ancient would be aghast to see our skewed values: how can a second-string bowler pocket enough money to buy a house and a car just by throwing improperly a ball six times across a meager distance of twenty-two yards?
More broadly, how did we come to value sports so much that we spend on it an amount of money sufficient to feed all the hungry people in the world?
Because we have made sports and entertainment at large into an indispensable psychological pain-killer. Just as a physical pain-killer numbs physical pain by deadening the nervous system, a psychological pain-killer numbs psychological pain by deadening thinking. Life in its inevitable routine course subjects us to many worries and troubles. Rather than labor to think through these problems, many people prefer to just turn on a sports channel and forget the problems, hoping that forgetting the problems will cause them to go away.
Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death explains eloquently the bankruptcy of our current culture: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
The sort of culture in which we seek to understand and live according to higher values, the deeper purpose, the ultimate meaning of life is dying. Within the context of that broader death of culture, the blips on the entertainment screen in the form of spot-fixing are just minor wounds.
The Bhagavad-gita (18.22) addresses this lopsided advancement of a culture that expands our ignorance: “That knowledge by which one is attached to one kind of work as the all in all, without knowledge of the truth, and which is very meager, is said to be in the mode of darkness.” The import of this verse can be succinctly put: When one thing becomes everything, everything becomes nothing.
When we give excessive or even exclusive importance to one thing (krtsna-vad ekasmin), then we lose touch with the totality of reality (atattvartha-vat). When money becomes everything for cricketers, they lose touch with ethics. When watching cricket becomes everything for the spectators, they lose touch with the overall loss of life’s meaning, a loss that makes the loss of ethics in cricket predictable, even inevitable.
All this is not to say that entertainment, cricket included, has no place in our lives. The Bhagavad-gita (6.17) includes recreation within the ambit of normal human activities, but also underscores the need to regulate all these activities. That regulation is not just in quantity – how much time and energy we spend on them – but also in quality – how much importance we give them in our worldview. When they reign unregulated, they suck us into a cultural and moral abyss that defies comprehension for those who are outside its gaping maw. We need a sense of balance in a culture that has lost its anchor and is being tossed about by the stormy waves of materialistic trivia.
Gita wisdom stands ready to offer that balance. It informs us that we are not just cricketers or spectators. We are not just monetary morons whose only business in life is to earn or spend money. We are not even just human beings meant to act as ethical police. We are spiritual beings whose vision and ambition can extend far beyond the temporary and finite world of which cricket has become such an important part. We are meant for acting with integrity and dignity in our true glory as precious agents of the all-benevolent supreme, whose desire it is to flood us with happiness far greater than what the best cricket match, even one free from fixing, can offer.
Our desire for delighting in the pursuit of human excellence too can be spiritualized. And we don’t have to delight in it merely as spectators; each of us can be players. By using whatever talents and resources we have in devotional service to Krishna, we can do justice to those talents, often exceed our own expectations of what we can conceivably achieve, and do all this in a way that can take us and everyone else towards the supreme reality.
But accepting that option requires courage. A courage that the Bhagavad-gita (7.3) says only a few among thousands posses. We have numbed ourselves to so much of reality already. When the pain-killer itself causes pain, the option still tempts us: why not just take further doses of the pain-killer to numb the pain caused by the pain-killer?
That, in fact, is what many will do. They will just pretend that match-fixing doesn’t matter as long as they can enjoy a good game of cricket. But what’s good about the game if it’s fixed? We can just shovel this irritating question into the dark cellars of our mind, hoping it will never re-surface again. But of course it will. Another scandal will come up, forcibly reminding us that we are fooling ourselves to fool ourselves.
We are denying the gravity of spot fixing to be able to deny the gravity of the far greater problem of spot fixation. The disruption in our pain-killer induced comfort can help us to come out of denial if we so choose. For those who make that choice, Gita wisdom stands ready with an alternative higher life that is spiritually satisfying and materially stimulating. It can show us the underlying spiritual foundations of the morality whose loss we lament. More importantly, it can show us the metaphysical central point that can help restore balance in a physical environment gone haywire. And most importantly, it , that can show us the underlying devotional longing whose misdirection makes us tune out reality by tuning in to the IPL mega-show.