Sporting Life

Pacquiao's 'not bothered' but maybe he should be

Manny Pacquiao is officially "not bothered". There, he has said it. Sticks, stones and Floyd Mayweather may hurt him but not chit-chat from celebrity critics who call him homophobic. This man used to be a great boxer who fought for the people but now he sounds like a lame politician who only likes a certain kind of people.

People have applauded Pacquiao for his assertion that gays are "worse than animals". Apparently this is called telling it how it is. Evidently, in a tart and Trump-eting world, crudity is now explained as honesty and bigotry as frankness.

Was this just Pacquiao - a congressman chasing a Senator's post - trying to find votes in a Catholic country and scoring a different kind of point? Whatever, it's a shame because Pacquiao the hammer-carrying pugilist is far more fun than this politician armed with rhetoric. His boxing is more thrilling and direct than all this moral mud-wrestling he's clumsily attempting.

As athletes gain fame, and riches, and with it an unreasonably powerful pulpit, it's never an entirely bad idea to use it for the benefit of the disadvantaged and discriminated against. When Novak Djokovic speaks with eloquence on refugees, sport temporarily feels like a worthy workplace which is not entirely inhabited by the self-indulged and the smug.

Jason Collins, the smart and courageous basketball player, criticised Pacquiao and is he also not to be bothered with? Because Collins is gay? If so, that would be tragic, for Pacquiao was born into poverty, he met struggles, he walked with hardship, he craved acceptance, and so he, of all people, is beautifully-placed to empathise with the marginalised.

At 12, he fought and earned 100 pesos for a fight and laughingly told ESPN: "One hundred pesos. I can buy one kilo of rice only four pesos. One hundred pesos, big." It makes you grin, for it's a story to sing about which would make any list of top 10 rags-to-rings fairytales. That's the place for him to be, not nestling next to Tyson Fury in some pathetic list of 10 biggest bigots.

Athletes don't display any bias when it comes to fans who attend their matches or pay to watch them on TV. Everyone's money is welcome, whether you're gay or Jewish or black. But as athletes gain fame and riches, and with that an unreasonably powerful pulpit, it's never an entirely bad idea to use it for the benefit of the disadvantaged and discriminated against. When Novak Djokovic speaks with eloquence on refugees, sport shines and temporarily feels like a worthy workplace which is not entirely inhabited by the self-indulged and the smug.

History has sufficient proof of athletic courage at work. At the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested against racial inequities at the 200m victory ceremony. The third man on the podium was Peter Norman, white and Australian and yet aware of their shared humanity. And so, in solidarity, he wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and as they stood in protest, he stood with them.

These men stood for the disenfranchised and for it received abuse and death threats. Someone should tell Pacquiao about this old story for it was hard work; demonising your fellow man, however, has always been easy.

What is grace, we sometimes wonder, and on a plane back from Brazil in 2013 we caught a glimpse. A new and fascinating Pope would say: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" Sport is a bit like that, it asks for talent and hard work, and leaves the rest alone.

Out there on the field, the corporate executive's daughter plays alongside the vegetable seller's child. Out there the bald plays with the short, the Muslim with the Hindu, the gay with the straight. We only ask that they run like the wind and we are united in the belief that any man, from anywhere, like Pacquiao, is capable of the extraordinary.

So why is he creating divisions?

And why is he not bothered?

Of course it will not affect his legacy because little does in sport. One day Jamie Vardy is yelling "Jap" angrily at a stranger, the next day he is a football hero from Leicester. No one has any memory in sport except if you lose and no one has greater forgiveness than the idolising fan.

I met Pacquiao in 2013 and was instinctively drawn to his gentle voice, polite manner and refusal to play the posturing, bellicose boxer. I travelled to his wonderful homeland in May last year and met local boxers who spoke of his generosity to them and common folk who remarked on his humility.

Later, I stood in the rain with his admirers in a Manila square and watched him fight Floyd Mayweather. Even in defeat the love for him was grand and wide and unqualified. People of all types adored the great fighter but it takes an enlightened man to respect every type of fan who loves him.

The boxer as dimwit is an unfair stereotype but Pacquiao has unwittingly resuscitated it. He has built his greatness bravely, only to now demean it. I like him but less so now, for in a planet of endless name-calling, sometimes you just feel, enough. There are no perfect heroes but we must demand better ones for our children. Pacquiao could still be that man. Or he might say he just couldn't be bothered.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Pacquiao's 'not bothered' but maybe he should be'. Print Edition | Subscribe