In the ongoing controversy over Darren Lehmann's charge and subsequent suspension for violating the ICC's racial vilification code, one can't help but feel his defenders and opponents of political correctness are missing the real point.
In case you missed it, Lehmann is reported to have shouted "black *****" in the dressing room after he was run-out against Sri Lanka during Australia's run chase in Brisbane on Wednesday night, which was heard by the Sri Lankans. Lehmann then sent an immediate written apology and also apologised to the Sri Lankan team in person, which was accepted. Sri Lanka chose to appeal for leniency to match referee Clive Lloyd, who then issued Lehmann with a severe reprimand.
The matter would have officially ended there, until ICC CEO Malcolm Speed charged Lehmann with a Level 3 breach of the Code of Conduct. The matter was heard on Saturday and Lehmann, who by being charged under Level 3.4 could have been suspended for a maximum of eight one-day games, was banned for five. This will cover Australia's final two preliminary games against England and Sri Lanka, the finals series and, if it does not extend to three games, Australia's first World Cup match against Pakistan.
Before Speed intervened, the ACB's only action was to arrange for Lehmann to undergo counselling. In a statement on Thursday which went to considerable lengths to avoid the 'r' word, ACB CEO James Sutherland said: "I have expressed to Darren the ACB's disappointment in the incident and organised immediate counselling for him. It is clear that he has acted in an undesirable manner and steps will be taken to see that behaviour such as this is not repeated."
For a board that already has its own racial vilification policy (presumably not a how-to guide), this was not good enough. Cynically, it's easy to believe this counselling is only another reminder on the importance of adhering to the (obviously disregarded) Code of Conduct, with the underlying message to think what you like, but play by the rules, so we can keep up our appearance.
What is most disturbing is not the fact that Lehmann yelled "black *****" in the dressing room. It is that his conditioning, upbringing and education would allow him, in a moment when his conscious mind was obviously not in full control (for he is not an idiot, and does not need counselling that such comments are "wrong"), to even react with an insult prefaced by reference to his opponents' skin colour.
Would Lehmann be any less guilty if he had only thought the same words? Or whispered them? The answer should be no. Reaction along the lines of what was merely said, then, treats the problem as just an unintentional mistake, like bowling a no-ball. If the comments were truly racist, then there is no way that this is sufficient, and he should have been charged under Level 4 and given a harsher punishment.
However, the charge under Level 3, and five-game penalty, seems to reflect that despite being charged with racial vilification, " " is not considered an inherently racist remark. Match referee Clive Lloyd, who having played for or captained West Indies through the 1960s to 80s should understand something about racism in cricket, refrained from labelling Lehmann's remarks racist, instead saying, "Darren's comment could be interpreted as deeply offensive and this must be eradicated from all sport, not just cricket," which is obviously true.
What Lehmann's apologists forget is that whether or not it is technically racist is beside the point. Just because one is opposed to political correctness does not make the disgusting insult forgivable. Lehmann is one of the most experienced, senior players in Australia's one-day team. Had he not been suspended, he would have been Gilchrist's vice-captain in Sunday's game. That he would abuse his opponents in those terms is despicable, and worthy of the ban. Believing otherwise utterly fails to take into account not only Lehmann's responsibilities as an international cricketer, but also the point of view of those on the receiving end, for which the insult is probably far more offensive than Lehmann can even imagine.
Also, it is nothing more than convenience for Lehmann's apologists to suggest Speed's intervention was mere political expediency to appease Asia, as Geoff Lawson reportedly claimed. While he does have world unity to consider in everything he does, and there is likely a consideration of being seen to be fair, Speed's action was consistent with his previous stance on player behaviour. He was right to lay the charge.
Since taking office, Speed has twice warned all teams that player behaviour standards must improve, most recently during the Ashes in December. Faced with an instance of egregious behaviour for which no charge was laid, he had no choice but to take the action for which is empowered.
Notwithstanding the five-game suspension, Lehmann's real punishment is the embarrassment and humiliation he deserves to suffer. To be considered racist is a dreadful thing, one of the worst accusations that can be made of a person, and one is hopeful he might learn something from the experience, above greater self-control.
Unfortunately, all this comes on top of Muttiah Muralitharan's remarks, stemming from his experience in the same game, that he might not tour Australia again due to his treatment from the crowd. In this, there are two distinct points at issue.
Distasteful though it is, the taunting of Murali and Brett Lee for their actions is partly a legitimate way for the public to register their disapproval of the present system for handling dubious actions. The fact is a lot of people think Murali throws. For this, he needs to develop a skin as thick as his elbow is bent.
Murali's other complaint, that the crowd laughed when he injured his quadriceps on Wednesday, is much more serious. It should not prevent him from touring, but to laugh in a player's face when he is injured in front of you (as was evident during the broadcast) is disgraceful. Unfortunately, such behaviour is all too symptomatic of Australia's one-day crowds generally, whose only concern is winning and having a good time, with any notion of sportsmanship not considered.
Lehmann and those spectators have been a shameful blight on the season.