Una Mullally: Rugby bodies must regain trust after rape trial

Disgusting WhatsApp messages and antics have eroded public respect for sportsplayers

Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson  with his solicitor Joe McVeigh: The announcement he would sue anyone who “sees fit to attack our client” was textbook Streisand Effect – where the attempt to censor or remove a piece of information from the public domain causes it to be publicised more widely. Photograph:  Niall Carson/PA

Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson with his solicitor Joe McVeigh: The announcement he would sue anyone who “sees fit to attack our client” was textbook Streisand Effect – where the attempt to censor or remove a piece of information from the public domain causes it to be publicised more widely. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

It may be something of an exaggeration to think that in years to come communications and PR students will study the incendiary reaction of Paddy Jackson’s legal team to the comments on social media following his acquittal on rape charges.

The announcement that they would sue anyone who “sees fit to attack our client” was textbook Streisand Effect – where the attempt to censor or remove a piece of information from the public domain causes it to be publicised more widely. The temperature of the reaction was so heated, that it spilled on to the streets, with people marching around the country.

Jackson has since released an additional statement saying “The criticism of my behaviour is fully justified”, which is some climbdown from the attacking stance of his legal team threatening to sue en masse.

While Jackson and the others were acquitted, the disgusting language in their WhatsApp messages is undeniable.

He won the battle, but the war of public opinion overwhelmed him and his reputation.

At this stage, damage control is painfully late, the prospect of a career being in the balance requiring a PR pivot that does not feel authentic.

The broader question, as Jackson tries to regain his reputation, is how do Ulster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union regain the trust of their fans, particularly their female fans?

The sensationalism and surrealism of the trial was amplified by it being concurrent with the Six Nations. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I couldn’t watch the matches. 

Conducting reviews

I eventually capitulated and watched the final brilliant game against England in my local pub, the magic of winning the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s Day still tainted with the off-pitch goings on.

So what? Does this matter? Who cares if someone feels bad watching a game? Don’t we have these conversations all the time about separating sportspeople’s achievements from their poor antics outside of their sport? Or separating an artist’s bad behaviour from their work? Does it matter? Yes.

The IRFU and Ulster are conducting reviews, which will probably be instructive when it comes to what happens next. In this country at least, the trust and respect for Jackson and Stuart Olding as sportsmen are gone – it’s over.

In my opinion, their careers in Ireland are finished. The simple reality is that no sponsor or company attached to a club or team here is going to welcome them back to an organisation they have money behind.

In professional sport, we can talk about talent and spirit and fandom and passion and comeback kids and all the rest, but it’s money that talks.

Perhaps these men don’t really “get” how disgusted people are by their WhatsApp messages and how they spoke about women. An ad was taken out in the Belfast Telegraph stating, “Such behaviour falls far beneath the standards that your organisations represent and as such we demand that neither of these men represents Ulster or Ireland now or at any point in the future.”

People are really angry about this. A tipping point has been reached. 

What is a much broader job for organisations is how they can tackle a culture that perhaps plays a role in creating or condoning such behaviour.

From the “jokes” other male rugby players have made online about the case, such as the disgusting photograph Malone RFC players shared, this culture in men’s rugby clearly exists.

I cannot imagine how female rugby players feel about this. 

None of this is confined to rugby, of course, but it’s rugby that’s in the spotlight right now, and so rugby has to act.

The IRFU should listen to former professional footballer and psychotherapist Richie Sadlier’s for he is a man who speaks frankly and maturely about male behaviour and how to educate young men about consent and respectful sexual relationships.

In fact, they should probably recruit Sadlier to roll out a programme across every club in the country.

Watching Irish rugby

That would certainly make me feel better about watching Irish rugby. And although this is less of a reality in Ulster schools, elsewhere in Ireland we also need to examine how gender segregation in schools may contribute to unhealthy interactions between young men and women, where the opposite gender is always “over there”, and teenage interactions in groups jolt from segregated single-sex schooldays to the charged environments of drunken school discos where the objective of the evening is to have a sexual interaction. 

The IRFU and Ulster Rugby cannot expect to quietly close this whole saga and move on.

They need to be proactive in making it clear to people who follow rugby – particularly women – that this sort of behaviour and culture is not the background noise of the sport, and that the inflated “respect” that rugby players enjoy in Irish society is actually earned.

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