Celebrating sports

Sharda Ugra

Parents of school-going children nurse noble pecking-order-dictated dreams on behalf of their offspring. Careers in medicine, engineering, (with software engineering at the top of that particular tree), management, finance, banking, accountancy all the way to arts and academia. All they want is for their children to be good, hygienic, solvent human beings with burgeoning bank balances.

Not so long ago, if there was ever a career path that set the parental lip a-tremble, it was sport. These days, the stout-hearted say, ‘what the hell?’ and take the chance.

Like Sania Mirza’s parents who fitted a diesel engine into their Maruti 1000, piled in and drove their child from tournament to tournament across the country.
Or Zaheer Khan’s, who set aside their jobs for a few weeks, and travelled to the maidaans of Mumbai looking for a coach who would take him in.
Or Saina Nehwal’s, who turned away from promotion-transfers in order to stay in Hyderabad with its proper badminton training.
Or those who sold land or borrowed money or stretched their imaginations and their budgets with equal daring.

So even if sports today is not quite at the top of the parental pecking order, sports journalism must surely be close to the bottom. Maybe, just above the vocations of vagabonds/wastrels/hunter-gatherers. In Australian newspapers, I have only recently discovered, the sports desk is usually called the ‘toy department.’ While we do consider our work utterly serious and meaningful, we have realized that the phrase ‘toy department’ is fairly accurate but only because there is always a lot of fun to be had.

Yes, the hours are long, often the stories are cyclical and seem to repeat themselves every few months. (Count the number of times these headlines pop up – “Bowling woes dragging team down,” “Hockey coach sacked”, “Leander-Mahesh war breaks out” “IOA elections challenged in court.”)

But in our work, there is always play. The sports desk/department in any newspaper is usually heard before it is seen. Upon being seen, it is heard at a very loud volume. The first major Indian sports journalism awards night was not quite red carpet, black-tie: it was held in a disco.

We get the best seats in stadia without paying for them or even requiring a corporate schmooze. We get to go to parts of those grounds that people dream of. Like the ‘mixed zone’ at any mega sports event where champions and the vanquished must stop to provide us what are called “flash quotes.” They are duty bound. Yes, Usain Bolt too. When India won the 2011 ICC World Cup, Yuvraj Singh walked into the media conference room and offered his congratulations to us.

These are not luxury-loaded perks but often you cannot exchange them for cars or watches or bespoke suits. Yet, when there are 4BHKs with a swimming pool and two-SUVs in the garage to dream of, it is slightly difficult to convince parents that their children could get something out of being sports journalists. What can possibly be the scope? Shaking Virat Kohli’s hand? Sigh! No wonder, it’s believed that the profession is filled with non-athletic dreamers and wastrels.

What sports journalism does offer, its real scope, I will say are free MBA-lessons. It’s a longish course and there are no placements with Infosys or Unilever on offer after it’s done, but hey, it’s free. No EMIs. Learn as you go along. The best athletes in the world, the great ones whose careers endure over the years, become our teachers.

And what do we learn from them? About the benefits of always being on time and staying honest for training and matches. How to handle nerves and the importance of preparing well.

Avoiding short cuts.
Finding humility in victory and grace in defeat.
About why real teamwork means working in the same direction with people who may not agree or like you and vice versa.
About how to balance competitiveness with sharing and generosity.

Being around sport, even if not in it, offers more than MBA, in fact. It can also contain the wisdom of ancient texts. So, don’t worry if your child or brightest student or favourite niece or nephew is being lured by sports and its journalism. Celebrate instead. Minus mid-career burnout or fraud godmen, they have found the route to save their souls.

The author works with ESPNcricinfo as a senior editor and has been a sports journalist for the last 24 years. She can be reached at shardau@yahoo.com.