February, 2003: Andy Flower and Henry Olonga walk out for Zimbabwe’s opening match of the World Cup wearing black armbands. They were protesting against the country’s then-president Robert Mugabe. The International Cricket Council (ICC) didn’t charge the two. Instead, they were let off with a warning.
November, 2016: During the third Test against India in Rajkot, England players – led by Alastair Cook – take the field wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day. They also observed a minute’s silence for the soldiers who lost their lives during the World War I. This was done with ICC permission.
March 2019: Virat Kohli leads out the Indian team wearing military hats for the third ODI against Australia in Ranchi as a mark of respect to the soldiers who died in the Pulwama attacks. The ICC, once again, did not object, saying the BCCI had taken permission.
On Friday, world cricket’s governing body objected to MS Dhoni’s use of an army insignia on his wicketkeeping gloves. The ‘Balidan’ symbol was spotted on the former India captain’s gloves during the World Cup opener against South Africa.
The ICC instructed him to remove it for the upcoming matches, saying it violated their laws related to clothing and equipment, which bars players from displaying personal messages. The clause also states that approval wouldn’t be granted for “messages which relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes.” The BCCI, on Friday, tried to seek ICC’s permission by convincing them that the badge wasn’t political in nature. But they did not budge.
The lack of consistent application of the rules arise from the fact that the ICC does not define what actions constitute as ‘political, religious or racial’ in nature. It’s a challenge faced by most international federations, including FIFA.
But unlike the ICC, they have been prompt in at least sanctioning the players under the existing framework.
The poppy case is a prime example. While the ICC gave England the green signal to wear a red flower on their shirts in 2016, FIFA threatened to punish the country’s football team that was planning to wear the poppy for a World Cup qualifier against Scotland.
FIFA, too, have explicit rules on players’ displaying personal messages on their clothing, equipment, and even undergarments. Law 4 of FIFA’s regulation states: “The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images… The team of a player whose basic equipment has political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images will be sanctioned…”
It was a repeat of the controversy that had overshadowed England’s match against Spain in 2011. Back then, FIFA turned down England’s proposal, saying it would give rise to more such initiatives around the world, which would “jeopardize the neutrality of football.”
Ultimately, a common ground was reached wherein England players were allowed to wear the poppy while the anthem was played and black armbands during the match.
Even five years later, FIFA could not define if the poppy symbol was political or religious in nature. Yet, since it was in violation of the laws it slapped the English FA with a fine of £35,000.
The decision was appealed at CAS but before the case would reach its conclusion, FIFA modified its rules. The revised law states: “When commemorating a significant national or international event, the sensibilities of the opposing team [including their supporters] and the general public should be carefully considered.”
FIFA tweaked its law after realizing that this would be a recurring issue each November – since Remembrance Day often coincides with an international match-day.
Because of the unique position they often are in, and the wider reach in middle of a major event, athletes often use sporting arenas as a backdrop for making a social statement. It dates back to US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting the country’s treatment of black citizens during the 200m medal ceremony at the 1968 Games to the more recent anthem protests, where the National Football League players have protested against police brutality by kneeling during national anthems.
There is an argument that Dhoni’s actions was not very different from the use of the poppy symbol by England’s cricketers and footballers. Both are, in essence, a tribute to the respective country’s soldiers. The ICC has taken a softer path for the poppies and FIFA has evolved its position on the issue over the years.
Dhoni may have to remove the insignia from his gloves for now. But it is unlikely we have heard the last on this issue.