The Khawaja Debacle: Freedom of expression for the Boxing Day test?

Dec 23, 2023
Perth (Optus) Stadium

Usman Khawaja played an important batting role in Australia’s recently finished demolition of Pakistan in the first Test in Perth. The ongoing controversy, however, around his writings on his cricket boots and black armband as a protest display have raised questions about the relations of sport and politics and the role of sporting and other institutions in policing what their players can or cannot do by way of using their vocational positions to promote what they believe to be pressing socio-political issues. Below I explore some of the roots of this significant dispute.

Usman Khawaja was going to field or bat on the first day of the Perth cricket Test against Pakistan with some brief written messages on the side of his shoes. But it was not to be. The International Cricket Council (ICC) and Cricket Australia stepped in to ban such footsteps on the field. Had those messages been advertisements or logos, no matter how gross or boring, or perhaps Christmas greetings to his mates or family, that might, given past history, have passed muster with the cricket overlords. Khawaja, however, had apparently scribbled something totally inappropriate which drew their grim warnings and prohibition, namely “Freedom is a human right” and “All lives are equal”. Who’d have thought!

So why would the ICC (not to be confused with that other ICC, the International Criminal Court) have banned two slogans aimed at reminding people of the basic human goods of liberty and equality? Of course, there’s often a need to explore the precise implications and specific details of those values, and as a philosopher I’d be all for that, but a simple reminder can have a role too. It is also clear in context that Khawaja wanted his messages to apply to the present Israeli military intervention in Gaza and the West Bank. And now the ICC has doubled down and charged Khawaja for wearing the black armband substitute without first getting their permission, a charge which if successful brings a reprimand. Indeed most news sources are reporting that he has been reprimanded.

The cricket authorities’ decisions are based on a fairly opaque clause in the ICC rules but probably reflects two confused outlooks that many other institutional leaderships also occasionally fall victims to. One is the idea that the institution must preserve at all costs its reputation for being neutral on contentious political issues and hence the cry of “politics and sport don’t mix”. A factor in this idea is also, and increasingly, the fear of offending sponsors and/or supporters, so possibly losing income. Another idea at work here is that any criticism of Zionism or Israel’s political or military policies must be avoided as a form of antisemitism. Khawaja’s messages don’t explicitly confront either of these ideas, but implicitly they impinge on both because he has made it clear that he means to remind cricket spectators at the Test and elsewhere of those basic goods of liberty and equality in order that they will bring them to bear upon the current Israel invasion of Gaza.

The first idea about politics and sport has fortunately already been eroded by Cricket Australia’s endorsement, along with many other sporting bodies, of the Yes campaign in the recent Voice referendum, as well as much else that could be mentioned, such as AFL indigenous rounds and the sponsoring of “Welcome to Country” introductions to all sorts of sporting events by indigenous spokespeople. We have moved a long way from the 1968 Olympics when the splendid Australian athlete (and fine man) Peter Norman ran an outstanding 2nd in the 200metres final splitting the two champion black placegetters and then stood in solidarity on the medals platform with them when they raised their clenched fists in protest against racist attitudes. That event shocked Athletics Australia and so proved the end of Norman’s illustrious burgeoning career, though his time (20.06) in the event still stands as the Australian record fifty-five years later. Yet, in 2019 Athletics Australia, eventually saw the light on politics and sport, and in partnership with the Victorian government raised a statue to Norman’s memory in Albert Park.

Such a change in attitudes usually takes a long time and in the meanwhile nonsensical actions like the moves against Khawaja occur as a strange combination of timidity and stern authoritarianism. Khawaja, while taping over the scribbling on his boots during the first day’s play in the Perth Test, has announced that he will contest the decision and instead wore a black armband during his innings. This initially produced more rumblings from the authorities, and now disciplinary action.

The second idea is palpably absurd, even though its promotion by Israeli lobbies in the West has gained surprising traction, especially in the United States where the Congressional House of Representatives recently passed a bill by a huge majority of 311 to 14 (with 92 Democrats abstaining) which inter alia declares that the House “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism”. Antisemitism is indeed a dreadful outlook which has cursed the world for centuries and continues to have bad effects today, but strong criticism of the State of Israel’s political policies and defiance of international law in numerous instances is another matter altogether and is often made by Jews themselves both within and beyond Israel. I will say no more about this since several contributors to Pearls and Irritations have already debunked the idea at some length.

The governing bodies of sports will have to curb their overreactions to what they see as political incursions by the players into their arena. The writings on Khawaja’s shoes were hardly visible except very close up and as his Captain Pat Cummins said of “all lives are equal” that’s “not very divisive”. And the phenomenon of sporting figures wearing black armbands is now so common that spectators usually pay no great attention to it, except perhaps to be mildly puzzled by whose death is being commemorated.

It may be said that my argument rests in part upon my sympathy for the concern Khawaja has for the appalling death and suffering that Israel’s military attack is inflicting on Palestinian non-combatants. I do have that sympathy because I think that their bombing of hospitals and homes shows at least a wilful disregard for the civilian immunity that just war thinking insists upon. Such a disregard may even sometimes amount to a deliberate attempt to inflict violent harms upon large numbers of the Gazan and West Bank population. But of course I also condemn the Hamas attack on October 7 as gross act of terrorism. (I have given an account of terrorism and its moral problems in my recent book The Meaning of Terrorism and will not repeat it here.)

I should add in conclusion that were a sportsperson sympathetic to Israel’s current war in Palestine to write on his/her shoes a slogan of moral principle that they thought supported that intervention, such as “Nations have a right of self-defence”, I would oppose attempts to censor that, or a black armband, and would agree that nations do have it, though again it needs more spelling out and clarification. Yet I would do so without accepting the sportsperson’s overall position on the war and the Israeli leadership’s interpretation of the morally (and legally) appropriate means of self-defence. I would thus regard that shoe message or black armband as a legitimate use of free speech or expression.

As we post this, Khawaja has said that he will not wear the armband at the Boxing Day Test, but will communicate with the ICC about the decision which he says was related to a personal bereavement and is “inconsistent”. We may well doubt that this is the end of the matter.

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