"I'm not a role model [...] just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids," basketball legend Charles Barkley once said in one of the most iconic and meaningful sports ads ever made.
You may disagree, but the gist of this school of thought is that athletes are entertainers and nothing more; the public should not expect anything else other than entertainment from them.
But that was in 1993. Nearly three decades later, even if Barkley's philosophy still holds in principle, the glut of social media platforms mean that a certain level of responsibility must be affixed to whoever airs their thoughts online.
In a way, in this day and age, every single person that goes on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is a role model — athletes being no exceptions.
Even Barkley, now a wildly famous TV analyst, oscillates between extremely funny and slightly controversial, but never crosses the line.
Yet, in Pakistan we have seen sports stars, with an astronomical number of fans and reach on social media platforms, often say things that are so far beyond crossing the line that the metaphorical line becomes a mere dot in the distance.
Over the past year, the YouTube boom has seen many prominent former cricketers set up their personal channels.
In theory, it’s a win-win situation and certainly more of a blessing than anything else. Sure, there is an information and interview overload but at least the fans get plenty of analyses, gossip, interviews and post and pre-match content.
It has also helped cricketer-turned-pundits break the monopoly of conventional TV networks. Not only does YouTube give them greater control on the quality and volume of their content, but also provides an alternative income for former stars struggling to make ends meet.
However, that’s just one side of the whole story.
From bad to worse
Over the past few months, the content put out by some of these experts has shown us how a good thing left unchecked goes from bad to worse in a flash.
At the forefront of this YouTube gold rush is none other than Shoaib Akhtar — the fastest bowler ever and fastest among all locals to amass one million followers on the the video streaming platform.
The Rawalpindi Express, never one to be known for restraint, was on a tear over the past year on the video sharing site.
He posted the first vlog on his channel on Feb 11, 2019 and 28 days later, had hit a seven-figure fan following. He now has more than two million followers who have viewed his 208 videos almost 165 million times. That’s almost 13 videos a month or nearly a video every two days.
As you expect of anything from Akhtar, his videos are unabashedly brazen and make for genuinely entertaining content — until he crosses the line, which is often.
Even after giving him the margin that comes with the understanding that outlandish statements are his SOP, or even hallmark if you may, Akhtar’s content during the coronavirus lockdown hit a whole new level.
At the start of the lockdown, he slammed Pakistanis for their Whatsapp quackery, but a few videos later, he interviewed a big pharma executive who not only downplayed the virus’ severity but also recommended taking “four to five doses” of hydroxychloroquine in case of infection.
The losing finalist of the 1999 World Cup then dropped his biggest one towards the end of April when he launched a tirade against the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and its legal advisor Tafazzul Rizvi, accusing the former of providing cover to fixing and the latter of profiting off of players' disciplinary issues.
He also questioned Rizvi and co’s legal expertise by accusing them of not being able to read a basic Pakistan Super League (PSL) agreement — only to be told later that Rizvi was not involved in drafting PSL contracts. That set of allegations also landed him a legal notice.
The fastest bowler ever made another bizarre statement, claiming that he was still capable of bowling out the world’s top-ranked batsman, Steve Smith, inside four balls.
This is a 44-year-old retired bowler who last played professionally almost 10 years ago and who had knee replacement surgery last year for a second time. The claim was so absurd and so obviously made to garner social media traction that even the International Cricket Council (ICC) had to mock it, which it shouldn’t have but still.
Jumping on the controversy bandwagon
Akhtar, although a YouTube trailblazer, is not the only one producing controversy-rich content. Javed Miandad, not so long ago, demanded capital punishment for match-fixers, and in another video he breathed a sigh of relief at Umar Akmal’s ban.
Somewhere in between, Miandad also appeared in a live telethon fundraising for the coronavirus, where the prime minister and the who’s who of broadcast journalism were present.
With millions watching, the self-proclaimed “human calculator” that is Miandad, claimed “to have an idea that would payoff Pakistan’s entire debt”.
Just so you know, Pakistan’s debt currently stands at Rs42.8 trillion. The premier and Senator Faisal Javed had to try their hardest to not break into laughter.
Aamer Sohail is another who has given voice to more than his share of things that do not make much sense.
Most recently, he said that Pakistan would have “easily won” three more World Cups had Wasim Akram been sincere with the team. Even the most die-hard of Pakistan fans wouldn’t say that the side was good enough to clean sweep all World Cups between 1996-2003, while even the worst of Akram’s critics wouldn’t blame him alone for each of those failures.
Another new entrant to this game is former pacer Tanvir Ahmed, who played a handful of games for Pakistan, but on his YouTube channel he wasn't shy of telling a superstar such as Babar Azam how to handle himself at the highest stage.
The not-so-golden advice was to "improve your English and personality".
Then there is Danish Kaneria who routinely accuses the PCB of discriminating against him and pleads for his life ban to be lifted, only to be reminded that the ban is not for the PCB to lift as it was placed by the ECB.
Not everyone’s like this of course. Saqlain Mushtaq, Shahid Afridi, Inzamamul Haq and even Ramiz Raja make sure to keep it light on their channels.
For Akhtar and the brash brigade, however, the need is for a round of internal gate keeping, without which the race for “like, subscribe, share and hit bell icon” could take a toll on their credibility and breed a brood who think it’s okay to slam whatever and whoever in the name of "sports analysis".
The writer is a cricket aficionado based in Karachi. He sells cars by day and writes sports by night.