Richie Sadlier: Belfast trial shows the problems in male sport

Education can support players in resisting the toxic attitudes in male professional sport

I don’t remember why exactly, but I was adamant one particular Saturday night in my early 20s that I wasn’t going to go out. I was happy to go to the pub, but no further. Wasn’t up for going out-out, as it were. To protect me against the pressure that was bound to come from mates after we’d had a few pints, I wore runners instead of shoes to ensure I’d be going home. London clubs back then didn’t let you in wearing runners, so I figured I was safe from being swept along with the tides of the night.

A little while later, at maybe around 11.30, I found myself choosing whatever pair of shoes I wanted from the local designer store. The owner had met us in the pub and was keen for my night to continue, so he opened up his shop especially for me and told me to take my pick. There was nothing there on sale that cost less than £100 but it didn’t matter because he was insistent I wasn’t paying.

When you’re a professional sportsperson, you’d be amazed what doors fling open for you all the time.

Velvet ropes

You don’t queue to get into nightclubs, and usually you wouldn’t be expected to pay. If there are velvet ropes anywhere you’ll be behind them. If there’s a lock-in to be had you can be sure you’ll be invited, and you won’t go a half-hour without someone telling you how great you are. I used to hear my old life being referred to as a bubble, as if it’s detached from society in an unrealistic way. I know what people are trying to say when they use that term to describe it, but it’s as real as the world inhabited by everyone else. It’s just that it comes with a set of norms that are anything but normal.

The culture of male professional sport is in the spotlight after the recent Belfast trial. In fact, male culture in general is being scrutinised, particularly in relation to attitudes towards women.

Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson, both acquitted of any crimes by the jury, are still suspended by Ulster and the IRFU until further notice. The content and tone of the WhatsApp messages that featured in court proceedings has also led to their Ulster team-mate Craig Gilroy being omitted from Saturday's Pro14 game against Edinburgh. An internal review into the matter is being undertaken by the club.

Whatever the outcome of those proceedings, or whether any of them play for the club again, the phrases they used to one another in their messages has caused outrage. We’ve all used words in private exchanges we wouldn’t use in public, but how many of us have asked our friends if “any sluts got fucked?” Is this a symptom of a wider problem in professional rugby circles or is this how many men speak to one another about women? These questions have been the focus of so much of the post-trial coverage in the past week.

Isolated example

This could, of course, be an isolated example of a conversation like this between those players. Maybe they were just incredibly unlucky and, as Gilroy’s apology statement suggested, this is in no way a true reflection of their personalities or their values. What were the odds, eh? The one time they sent messages like these and they end up going public. Or maybe they speak like this all the time?

Even if they did, of course, there’s the possibility they’re the only rugby players that do. It’s not fair to assume anything of other players based solely on the fact they’ve the same jobs. We can only speculate, obviously, but on the limited info we have, it’s fair to say there’s room for improvement on the words they used.

In a world where sex is so freely available, the objectification of sexual partners is almost inevitable

But maybe this is an indication of a deeper issue for the sport, which wouldn’t surprise me given what I know of professional football.

One of the questions that arose during the trial was whether the complainant was attracted to the players because they were players. That’s a thing, if you didn’t know. People want to sleep with you just because you’re a sportsperson. Could she be described (and therefore subsequently discredited) as someone who seeks the affections of rugby players just because of their fame? Was she a “groupie”? A WAG-wannabe? Did she have a history of sexual encounters with other rugby players?

Society looks down on people who behave in this way. This kind of speculation was all over social media too. It was a predictable line of questioning for the barristers in the court to take, but there’s a wider point to be made here too. And it’s a point that may help to explain the language in some of the texts.

Privilege and status

In a world where sex is so freely available, the objectification of sexual partners is almost inevitable. The privilege and status that comes with the job will unavoidably lead in some cases to notions of superiority. This in turn will have some men looking down on women in general, and the language used in those messages somehow becomes the vocabulary.

Given the usually private nature of our conversations in this area, it’s virtually impossible to know who is impacted in any way by this culture. This isn’t the time for people to insinuate all male sportspeople think in this way, but it’s certainly an opportunity to deal with those who do.

Ulster rugby has a responsibility here, and so too do the IRFU. Circling the wagons until the heat dies down will fail. Education is required to support their players who, like us all, are influenced by the environments in which they operate. Being well-spoken or talented, formally educated or wealthy isn’t an indication of attitudes in this area. But if you operate in a world where there is little accountability, you’re screwed when it comes to learning about sex and relationships.