Is the sumo career of top division wrestler Abi over?
The 26-year-old’s hopes of remaining a professional athlete after his most recent antics won’t be helped by the fact that the Japan Sumo Association has, for decades, used a version of cancel culture to punish wayward wrestlers and stablemasters.
Many of those who have transgressed against the JSA’s myriad rules (whether official or unwritten) in the past have found themselves out of the sport in short order, with no hope of ever making a return.
Abi’s breaking of an association-wide lockdown to visit entertainment establishments and socialize with members of the general public, brought immediate repercussions. Shikoroyama stablemaster pulled him from the ongoing tournament, and JSA Chairman Hakkaku called his actions “unpardonable” — a choice of adjective that certainly makes it seem like the Saitama native’s time in sumo is about to come to an end.
Already on thin ice after horseplay last year that led to all wrestlers from being banned from posting to social media, and childish remarks to the media about having slept through a lecture on expected behavior, this latest indiscretion is likely to be the final straw
Being a young and popular rikishi who has spent most of the past year in the upper echelons of the top division won’t help Abi either.
Two of the past three yokozuna to retire did so only because they were forced into a “jump or be pushed” situation.
Asashoryu and Harumafuji won 34 Emperor’s Cup between them and were two of the biggest stars of the sport, but even that wasn’t enough to save them in the wake of (separate) acts of violence outside the ring.
In that respect, Japanese sumo is about as far as you can get from the world of American professional sports, where all kinds of crimes are overlooked as long as the athlete in question is productive, and where someone like Adrian Peterson, who plea bargained felony child-abuse charges down to a reckless assault charge can still find employment and be feted by sections of the media.
The JSA has no qualms about handing down what are essentially lifetime bans for first time offenders — even if those offenses don’t result in prosecutions or break any of the JSA’s own rules.
With no appeals process or sentencing guidelines in place, the sumo association’s decisions have, however, often come under criticism for being opaque, unfair and overly harsh.
Public sentiment clearly plays a part as well, and you don’t need to be all that keen an observer to see that discussions in the media or online have exerted an influence on the various judgments in the past.
With Abi’s actions in this latest incident putting the lives of other rikishi and members of the general public at risk, and there being little sympathy for him either on talk shows or in newspaper columns, it would seem that his fate is sealed.
Of course, nothing is ever certain in sumo until it is announced so there is still a chance the long-limbed troublemaker could escape with a lighter punishment.
Although the eventual decision will be made behind closed doors, it will likely be on the harsher end of the scale and probably have the reasoning behind it explained in only the most general terms, it’s arguable that the JSA’s disciplinary procedures are actually better (or at least more suited to sumo) than those found in other sports.
As a Carl Lewis fan, I remember being crushed when Ben Johnson won the 100-meter final at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. When the latter man was subsequently found to have engaged in doping and was disqualified, it left a bad taste, but I felt justice had been done.
Those feelings dissipated when Johnson was cheered on by a massive crowd upon returning from his ban, and my disgust and disillusionment was only deepened by seeing athletes in various other sports such as cycling and swimming cheat in various ways only to have their lucrative careers only temporarily interrupted.
Perhaps it was a naive view, but allowing athletes who have engaged in actions that undermine the validity of a sport to continue to participate alongside those who have played by the rules of the game from the start never sat right with me.
As I’ve gotten older that outlook has expanded to include athletes who engage in serious criminal acts or those that put the public in danger.
I’d rather have an overly harsh disciplinary system that comes down hard on misbehavior than one that can only hand out ineffectual short-term suspensions or fines of a level that are barely noticeable.
Abi, of course, hasn’t engaged in activities anywhere near as bad or illegal as many NFL players, but his latest actions have put people’s lives at risk. He may be no more than a John Bender-like mischief-maker at heart, but being a rikishi carries a greater responsibility than that of other professional athletes. Because of that he is likely to receive a harsh punishment at the conclusion of the current tournament.
Whether or not you believe the permanent ending of a young sumo wrestler’s career over something as seemingly trivial as going out eating and drinking is excessive, if the expected punishment does come down it will likely deter other members of the JSA from mixing and mingling with the general public during an ongoing pandemic, and that can only be a good thing.