The Ben Stokes saga: should sports stars really be held to a higher account?

The cricketer has been suspended by England after a street fight in Bristol.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

There are times when a columnist feels the pressure to pronounce – to articulate the case against or make a defence – and instead feels sadness and uncertainty. That is how I’ve felt while thinking about Ben Stokes, who, alongside Alex Hales, has been suspended by England after a street fight in Bristol.

Stokes is a once-in-a-generation talent. Now, instead of being English cricket’s inspiration, he has derailed preparations for the tour of Australia. Cricket fans will justly feel let down if a Bristol brawl leads to a diminished or distracted England XI.

Where to start? The hurricane of opinion already published and broadcast about Stokes is based on highly incomplete evidence. The range of possible legal outcomes is wide. At the time of writing, charges may or may not be brought; Stokes may or may not be found guilty, and so on.

The incident certainly cannot be taken lightly and the footage makes for horrible viewing. Blows to the head carry serious risks. The former Australian cricketer David Hookes died after being punched by a hotel bouncer. And though unconnected, it is an unhappy coincidence that sport is currently soul-searching about on-field head injuries and concussion.

What about the argument that risk-takers on the pitch, especially thrilling all-rounders such as Stokes, are predisposed to lead wild lives off the field? But spontaneous brilliance on the field is not necessarily bound up with a lack of control off it. Moeen Ali has dazzled this summer, but he is mild-mannered (and teetotal).

Other arguments, presented as self-evident, become problematic when you interrogate them. Being outside a student nightclub at 2.30am is held up as sufficiently damning evidence. It’s certainly not wise. But how shocking is it? There have been great performances on the cricket field when the protagonist was not so much hungover as still partly drunk. It does not follow that alcohol improves performance. And, yes, heavy drinking will surely eventually find itself on the wrong side of sports culture. Nonetheless, if every professional cricketer, past and present, had to own up about every time they had been out late drinking two days before a match, the list would be endless. There are two sides to this: the reality that it happens and the way it is received. Dozens of stories, applauded on the after-dinner circuit, celebrate a connection between heroism on the field and mayhem off it.

One difference today is technology. Events such as the Bristol fight are probably becoming rarer in professional sport. But they are now captured on camera. Players must catch up with that new reality.

But it is too convenient to say that Stokes and Hales damn themselves by their presence alone. What people mean is: they shouldn’t have been there, given what was about to happen. This isn’t really an argument. It is an invitation to try to discern the level of guilt involved in the fight – which carries risks of contempt of court.

The grainy footage is bleak viewing, but the circumstances are unclear – even without knowing the context. At one point, a man appears to brandish a bottle. Did the prospect of being “bottled” lead to Stokes’s apparent rage? There is a legal dimension (questions of self-defence) as well as what we might hesitatingly call unofficial systems of justice. If there is a code in street fights, I expect that using a bottle is considered likely to escalate the level of violence.

One option for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – not taken – was to let legal proceedings unfold. Instead, by suspending Stokes and Hales and beginning its own disciplinary inquiry, the ECB has raised a recurrent issue: should sportsmen be held to a higher account? To what extent are they role models, and in which contexts? I don’t know.

When the Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero was injured in a late-night car crash at the end of September, the coach Pep Guardiola said he didn’t know what his players do in their own time. Some people have accused Guardiola of evasion and England’s management of wilful blindness.

This goes too far. When something goes wrong, it’s easy to find “explanations” – events overfitted with causes. A losing team is often said to have “stifling” management. Coaches are ridiculed for being “headmasterly”. Trevor Bayliss, England’s coach, is being criticised for being too lax, just as his predecessor Andy Flower was attacked for being too strict. There is always a balance between trust and control and it’s hard to achieve.

Are England too keen to protect Stokes because he is such a good player? Shouldn’t there be one set of rules for everyone?

The law should view everyone fairly and equally. But this strand of the debate relates to Stokes’s treatment not by the justice system (we don’t know much yet) but inside the game. Here talent, inevitably, speaks loudly. It is the same in an orchestra or a pop group: exceptionally talented people are given more chances, because huge talent doesn’t come around very often.

The young Ricky Ponting, the brilliant Australian batsman, had problems with drinking and punch-ups. Cricket Australia poured resources into managing it, and Ponting flourished. If Ponting had been a borderline pick, his handling might have been less bespoke. Do the super-talented, already blessed at birth, deserve even more good fortune? That takes me back to the beginning of this column – uncertainty.

Stokes had occupied a unique place in world cricket. One top Test player, despite some on-field tussles with Stokes, told me how much he respected him as an opponent – combative but brilliant, feisty but fair.

Whatever the legal outcome, Stokes is surely reflecting on how his remarkable gifts have been put in a precarious position. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer