I was quite cross after the West Indies blitzed the last over of the World T20 final and snatched it from England’s grasp. I admired Brathwaite’s hitting of course and I sympathised with Stokes, who was a matter of inches away from being on all the front pages with head held high rather than on the back pages with head bowed. Still, I was cross that England had allowed me to think this was a done deal and we were six balls away from being world champions.
Then within seconds of the amazing West Indies win, we had TV pictures of Marlon Samuels tearing off towards the England dug-out, ripping his shirt off, seemingly spoiling for a fight. In a moment when you’d expect the emotion to be delight, joy and gratitude, he appeared angry, aggressive and ungrateful. His anger subsided – a little – but the posturing remained throughout the ceremony afterwards and the press conference after that. It was, I felt, ugly and unbecoming. Judging by social media, I was in the majority.
But then I wondered, why do we need our sports stars to be perfect heroes? Why should I or anyone else begrudge Samuels his moment or the way he chose to use it? Does our reaction say more about us than about him?
Yes. And this may be why…
Unwittingly, our sporting heroes represent order and morality. In the sporting arena, we expect good things to happen to good people. Sportsmanship, fair play, hard work, talent – these are the ingredients that bring reward aren’t they? Not always, they’re not. Ben Johnson, Lance Armstrong, Hansie Cronje, Diego Maradona…all quite brilliant and all fatally flawed in different ways. The fall from grace is so spectacular because we expect so much. With each fall, an illusion is shattered.
It turns out that good is not always rewarded, iniquity not always punished. Suddenly the world is not as ordered and fair, it is arbitrary and amoral. Individuals are flawed, arguments are nuanced, stories are not black and white. We can’t take this dissonance as it makes life too complex, decisions too hard, certainty impossible, so our heroes must either remain elevated with the gods or vilified with the devil.
Another part of the problem is that very early in our lives we buy into scripts to which we expect everyone to conform. Fairy tales, Hollywood movies, Roy of the Rovers…we get a sense of where these stories will go, where the moral will be delivered, where right triumphs over wrong. Have you ever read a story to a young child where the ending wasn’t happy ever after or the good guy didn’t win? Utter bemusement and not a little fear. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be…this isn’t how the world is ordered.
Making our heroes superhuman also protects us in another way. They are not like us, they are achieving things we could never achieve, they are born to it. Well, not really. These are flawed human beings just like us. They have succeeded through talent, yes, but mainly through hard work, ambition, risk-taking, audacity, self-belief, practice. The painful thing is that they have succeeded where maybe we could have too. But we did not. They are more like us than we care to admit. So when they show their flaws, it makes us angry – angry at them for not behaving as their elevated position demands and angry at ourselves for not having succeeded as much as we might.
Finally, and returning to Marlon Samuels, it is easy to vilify a caricature. It is also easy for the person behind the caricature to adopt it as a persona, as the only way to take control of the way they are seen. I know nothing of Marlon Samuels off the field or of his upbringing but I do know that people don’t just get as angry as Samuels is for no reason. They don’t choose confrontation, they don’t need their ego boosting all the time, they don’t adopt an iniquitous persona from nowhere. I have no idea what made Marlon Samuels into the man he is today but I’m pretty sure that if I – and you – knew, we’d see him differently. We all have a story, even our heroes and villains, but of course it’s easier not to know it, easier to have a narrative free from ambiguity, where we know what is right and what is wrong. But the other night, Marlon Samuels helped to demonstrate that this is untenable. This is a world where the boorish, angry, unlikeable Samuels is the hero. Life is no fairy tale, and Marlon Samuels shouldn’t have to apologise for that.