It's a news report many of us would have read this past Thursday. A report on how the cheerleaders at the ICC World Twenty20 were a "disgraceful eyesore" and that they "showcased Sri Lanka in poor light". Sri Lanka Cricket waded in and blamed the International Cricket Council for choosing the cheerleaders, while the manager of the cheerleaders was quoted as saying, "to get beautiful girls, you need to pay more" - not something you'd have thought you'd hear around a cricket tournament, right?
It doesn't need to be reiterated that what really is disgraceful here are not the cheerleaders. But then again, the attitude of cricket's organisers and officials (or indeed sections of the media) - overwhelmingly male, of course - should come as no surprise.
Why are cheerleaders such a big part of modern-day sport? Why are attractive women, often actors or models, often with no intellectual investment in the sport in question, made to host sports shows? Why do we have the Lingerie Bowl on pay-per-view TV in America at halftime during the Super Bowl?
It's sad that even today, with all the strides that women have made in sport, it is considered a male preserve - and the audience is seen as predominantly male. How can one question that when, apparently, major money is spent on research to determine audience profiles? And with so much money riding on everything, what does it matter if a few commentators and bloody-minded individuals turn noses up at the goings on?
But - let's set aside the issue of commodification of women here, because that is a long, tangled debate - what about the complete lack of tact in the way that those in responsible positions have spoken on the issue here?
Let's assume for a moment here that the cheerleaders at the World T20 are neither attractive (and that this is a matter of vital importance) nor competent. They are there, obviously, for the entertainment of the spectators seated in the front-row seats and for TV viewers who (presumably) find three young girls carrying out choreographed routines for three-four seconds every once in a way vaguely titillating. Much like the role that a low-cut blouse with noodle-straps was meant to play in 2003.
A British newspaper started out by calling the girls a "disgraceful eyesore". It's mean-spirited, no doubt, but the newspaper in question was not an official charged with maintaining the dignity of the game. But then, a senior SLC official came out and said, "The cheerleaders are harming the image of Sri Lanka." And Sudev Abeysekara, the cheerleaders' manager, told Hindustan Times, "In an event like this you need good looking girls, and to get the beautiful girls who are professional dancers, you have to pay more; the payment is not that great." (To be honest, the cheerleaders' routines definitely needed more practice, and their costumes were certainly ridiculous.)
So who's to blame for the "eyesore"? The ICC, because it - if Abeysekara is to be believed - scrimped on its budgets; throwing in cheergirls because everyone does, but not budgeting the overhead? Or the manager fellow, because, he went with the budget he had without a thought for "Sri Lanka's image in the rest of the world", economising with his choice of girls? The ICC hasn't given a statement, so we don't know the truth there. Nishantha Ranatunga can't be blamed for the choice or girls or the budgets, of course, but a lot else - like his choice of equating Sri Lanka's image with the attractiveness quotient (to Western eyes?) of the country's women.
What we have at the end of it are a group of girls, possibly qualified dancers or training to be dancers, whose physical attributes have been analysed threadbare in public by gentlemen in positions of respect. The manager has even been quoted as saying, "The girls are not comfortable. The tights they are wearing slip down while dancing and the girls are busy tying them here and there. They are also conscious that parents are watching."
Now (allow me a moment to be maudlin here) these are people, with feelings and complexes, and families and friends who'd be hurt by this public humiliation.
Don't do it. Please. Cheerleaders won't make Chris Gayle hit more sixes than he already does or help Ajantha Mendis and Sunil Narine discover more ways of fooling batsmen. Twenty20 is already a wildly exciting product. It may have none of conventional cricket's gravitas, but it must still be conducted in a dignified manner. Here, for instance, if the girls were under-performing, it might have been best to ignore them and not create a furore. Or remove them quietly - no one seems to want them anyway.
Dignity, and a dash of sensitivity, must be the basis for all sport, even in today's market-driven world. Yes, even in Twenty20 cricket.
Shamya has done the rounds of pretty much every medium that journalism has to offer: the web, newspapers, radio, magazines and, for the last seven years, news television. Among other places, he has worked with Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tehelka, ESPN, The Indian Express and TV Today. His last engagement was as Editor - Sports with television channel NewsX, and he writes regular columns for the magazines Man's World and Sahara Time and occasionally for international journals like Sport in Society. His book on Indian boxing - Bhiwani Junction (HarperCollins India) - should be out in time for the London Olympics.
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