What Cricket and the IPL Can Learn from Tragic Toles Story

Top-level sport is a ruthless business. No matter what you’ve achieved in your career, you can find yourself cut adrift. Sir Alex Ferguson is rightly remembered as one of the greatest football managers of all time, the one who restored Manchester United to their former glory and then some. Yet, those who watched his teams could tell you that there would have been no dynasty without Roy Keane, the snarling, combative Irishman who patrolled Ferguson’s midfield, and laid down the law in the dressing room.

Keane’s influence was never more apparent than when United went to Turin in April 1999, and beat a mighty Juventus side that had the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro del Piero in the semifinal of the Champions League. Keane picked up a yellow card that would rule him out of the final, but from first minute to last, he played like a man possessed. United remain the only English team to have won the treble of league, FA Cup and Champions League.

But when Keane skewered his underperforming teammates in an interview with Manchester United’s in-house video channel in late 2005, Ferguson chose to let him go. A new generation had come to the fore, and another great side was being assembled, and while there were teething troubles, it was the aging veteran, rather than the erratic youngsters, who was considered expendable. And nearly two decades on, Keane’s relationship with his manager remains problematic.

Letting Keane go wouldn’t just have been Ferguson’s call. Sports teams are now brands, and image is everything. Keane’s comments, though they might have been on the money, would have caused more than frowns at boardroom level. In the years since, as Ferguson left and United slid dangerously close to irrelevance, Keane was one of the most trenchant critics of the way the club was being run.

But nowhere does it say that you need to be heartless while running a profitable business. The story of Andrew Toles, a once-promising Major League Baseball player, is heartbreaking. But the manner in which the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that he last played for, have dealt with the situation is a reminder that humanity always has a place.

Toles, who will turn 31 in May, had a chequered college career, with disciplinary issues forcing him to transfer once. But his talent was so obvious that he was picked up in the 2012 draft and farmed out to play in the minor leagues. Even at that stage, behavioural issues and mental-health struggles were apparent, but the Dodgers took a chance on him before the 2016 season.

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Dave Roberts, his manager who subsequently led the Dodgers to a World Series win in 2020, later called Toles’s first season a ‘dream’. The talent that had alerted scouts when he was a teenager was easy to see, and the future looked bright. But after a season-ending knee injury in 2017, Toles was never the same player.

He missed the start of spring training in 2019 and gradually slipped off the radar. By then, he had already been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he was arrested for sleeping rough behind an airport. These days, his father cares for him. The challenge is no longer to crunch a fastball or slider out of the park, but to make it through the days.

Why is the story of Toles so important? Because the Dodgers continue to renew his contract, so that he will keep getting the medical insurance that allows for his condition to be treated. The franchise could have cut ties years ago, once it became apparent that there was no way the player was coming back, but they have chosen to stand by him. Roberts has spoken more than once of how he’d like to meet him again and hug him, and of how much he’s missed.

Whether it’s baseball or American Football or basketball, the players have negotiated collective-bargaining agreements that best look after their interests. In European football, over 50 per cent of a club’s revenue, more in some cases, is spent on player salaries. The Professional Footballers Association keeps addressing key issues that affect players, past and present.

Why does this matter? The Indian Premier League (IPL) is now like a slot machine where you always win. The owners’ profits have gone up manifold since the early years. There’s a traffic jam of sponsors wanting to be associated with the league or individual franchises. Player salaries may seem astronomical compared to what the man on the street earns, but they’re barely a drop in the ocean compared to the teams’ revenue.

But national federations, leagues and franchises exist for reasons other than just making money. They also have a duty of care to the athletes. In the case of Toles, he was eventually sidelined by a condition that had afflicted him since he was a young man. But what of those whose mental health is destroyed by external factors?

Go online and sample the abuse that’s dished out when a team loses a close game, or even when they win. Death threats are just the start. If you’re a woman, mentions of rape are hardly uncommon. This noise is often amplified by traditional media as well. It doesn’t end there. Players can have troubled relationships within a team environment as well. They may not feel wanted, or there could be some sort of bullying.

It happened a generation ago with a gifted Indian all-rounder. At some point, the bullying, which had started off as banter, became outright nasty. It clearly impacted him as well, and the fall from the heights he once scaled was dizzyingly fast. His is hardly an isolated story either. There are players who were never told why they were dropped, or why the captain or coach didn’t rate them enough.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the IPL are now so rich that they could fill several full-size swimming pools with dollar bills. But how much of that money is being directed towards player welfare, especially helping them with mental-health struggles? We frequently hear of the board picking up the tab for a surgery or rehabilitation programme, but what of those who carry scars in their minds?

Virat Kohli has spoken openly and movingly about the impact that depression had on him. Before him, the likes of Maninder Singh, Sadanand Viswanath, Robin Uthappa, Praveen Kumar and so many others had struggled to cope with life beyond the boundary. Cricket may be a team sport, but with so much focus on individual statistics, it’s no wonder players often retreat into their own cocoons.

More than three decades ago, David Frith even wrote a book called By His Own Hand, documenting the many cricket suicides going back more than a century. It’s a bleak read, and all the more poignant because it features a piece from Peter Roebuck, who would take his own life two decades later.

Several of the franchises have taken up praiseworthy initiatives, whether they relate to the girl child or the environment. But sport, at any level, is first and foremost about the players. An IPL contract can be life-changing, but as Andrew Toles’s story shows, money isn’t everything. Without a strong players’ association and increased focus on their mental health – especially in his age of rampant and almost-unchecked online abuse – all the money in the world won’t change the fact that Kohli and friends are little more than puppets for our amusement.

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