On the face of it, the statement by Anuj Gupta -- owner of Sudeva FC, a club in I-League 2, the third tier of Indian Football -- is unremarkable: They want to hire Alex Ambrose as a coach and, though there is a case against him of sexual abuse, they feel "he is innocent until proven guilty".
Add the context of the Ambrose case, however, and the sheer audacity of Sudeva's stand is exposed; see it through the prism of the ongoing protest by India's top wrestlers and there's a stunning tone-deafness, at the very least. More realistically, it shows (again) just how little our athletes matter in the world of cold, hard decision-making.
First, the facts of the Ambrose case: In short, Ambrose was one of the coaches with the India Under-17 women's team when, last year, he was accused of sexual abuse of one of the players (a minor) during a tour of Europe. He was sacked by the AIFF and a case was filed against him in a Delhi court under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The case is currently with the court and, in February, Delhi police issued a warrant for his arrest.
That is where the Alex Ambrose story stands right now. He is an accused in a case of sexual abuse of a minor female.
The wrestlers' protest is well known. Three of India's most decorated wrestlers, and at least two of them medal hopefuls at next year's Paris Olympics, have been protesting since mid-January seeking the arrest of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, till recently president of the Wrestling Federation of India. Singh, they have alleged, was involved in multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault of women wrestlers over several years.
There has been widespread support among the public at large for the wrestlers and condemnation of the relative apathy of decision-makers. But not loud enough, evidently, to reach the ears of the people at Sudeva FC - who operate a couple of kilometres from the wrestlers' protest site at Jantar Mantar.
There are many reasons why Sudeva would have thought it legitimate to even consider such a decision, but the most damning has to be the silence of those who wield power and influence. On April 28, this website ran a story listing who'd said what - those with a direct responsibility to speak or act on women's issues and other high-profile influencers who could lend their weight to the wrestlers. It was more a list of who hadn't said anything:
Union Minister for Women and Child Development
National Commission for Women
National Commission for Protection of Child Rights
Almost three weeks later, there has been no need to update that list. Not one of them has spoken yet.
It indicates another, more subtle texture to the narrative: treat this entire issue as an administrative problem within the WFI and try and shift the focus away from the far more serious issues of serial sexual assault and abuse. The report by the sports ministry's oversight committee hasn't been made public but the bits that have been revealed by the sports minister focus on holding elections and similar unticked boxes. Nothing on the assault and abuse. Maybe if no one talks about it the buzz will die down. Maybe if the buzz dies down sufficiently the wrestlers will pack up and go home.
Well, they are still there, and what they have to say would move even the sternest bureaucrat or politician, if only they'd listen. Their latest appeal is to all the women MPs of the BJP - the party that has, over the past few years, sought strongly to identify with women's safety and wellbeing.
Those same MPs, that same political system, could also turn to look at the Ambrose issue and nip this in the bud. After all, the man running Indian football is part of their extended family, a BJP candidate in the last parliamentary elections.
There is no indication that the AIFF, which has to approve the appointment, will give its assent; the PTI report on this story suggested they would refuse. That would be heartening but in a sense the assent or denial is irrelevant: the genie is out of the bottle.