Gerry Thornley: Saga of Jackson and Olding a salutary warning
Rugby contracts revoked: Apologies are all very well, but crude WhatsApp messages will follow players wherever they go
No less than other celebrities, be they sporting or otherwise, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding enjoyed some of the trappings and attention that came with their status as international rugby players – but they have also now discovered that there are many downsides to this high profile.
Uppermost among these was the extent to which every sordid detail of the Belfast rape trial was consumed by the public. In part, this reflected the voracious appetite for those sordid details, but more than anything, the fact the public was so intrigued emanated from Jackson and Olding being Irish rugby internationals.
That the trial was held in the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, rather than the Republic of Ireland, also meant the names of the four accused young men could be revealed.
Addressing text messages sent by Olding to friends after the events of the night in question, boasting about “spit-roasting”, his counsel, Frank O’Donoghue QC said they were nothing but “a titillating sideshow and they have no evidential value in relation to my client in this case”. He said Mr Olding was simply “bragging in the privacy of his own phone”.
They may have been a titillating sideshow in relation to the criminal case, and they may have been exchanged in the privacy of Olding’s and others’ own phones, but once they were made public it was clear their careers in Irish rugby were over.
With their status as Ulster and Irish players came responsibilities, as well as the profile and trappings, and they abrogated theirs.
On March 28th, Jackson (26) and Olding (25) were found not guilty of raping the same woman at a house party at Jackson’s south Belfast home in June 2016. Jackson was also cleared of sexual assault. But in the media and social media coverage that followed, that almost became an irrelevance. As well as there being less privacy in the world nowadays, society has become less forgiving.
On the steps outside the Laganside courthouse, Jackson’s lawyer said the Ulster and Ireland outhalf’s main priority was now to return to work. “That means getting back on the rugby pitch and representing his province and his country.”
This may have been some kind of bargaining ploy in advance of Ulster and the IRFU coming to the view that he and Olding would not return to work with them, or alternatively it could reveal how Jackson, Olding and their advisers were unaware as to the extent of the revulsion over those WhatsApp text messages.
Whereas Olding had immediately adopted a more apologetic and regretful tone on those same steps that day, 10 days later Jackson issued a statement apologising “unreservedly” for engaging in “degrading and offensive” WhatsApp conversations.
By then, though, the Ulster and IRFU review was already nearing a conclusion, and in truth the players’ fate had assuredly already been sealed.
Jackson was reckoned to be paid somewhere in the region of €400,000-€500,000, with Olding understood to be on considerably less. It is likely that some compensation was agreed in revoking their contracts, but they have paid a heavy price, and not just financially.
Their careers with Ulster and Ireland are over, and the end was swift. A brief, three-paragraph statement issued by Ulster Rugby and the IRFU said their contracts, which had been due to run until June 2019, had been “revoked”.
This followed a review conducted by Ulster Rugby and the IRFU, reputedly containing two unidentified people from each body. Under the terms of a standard IRFU contract, the union reserves the right to “summarily terminate this agreement and dismiss the player from its employment if the player is guilty of gross misconduct, or has committed a serious breach of the terms of this agreement, or any of the IRFU’s policies, codes and regulations notified to the player.”
Specifically, this incorporates “being guilty of any form of conduct which brings the game into disrepute”. Ultimately, while the players have been acquitted of all criminal charges, their contracts have been revoked under the code of conduct.
Whether or not their contracts should have been terminated has polarised opinion, particularly in Ulster. There have been petitions which both opposed and supported the players being allowed to renew their careers with Ulster, as well as contrasting advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph.
Across the road from the main entrance to the Kingspan Stadium on Mount Merrion Avenue before Ulster’s 8-0 Guinness Pro14 win against the Ospreys on Friday night, about 250 people took part in a demonstration entitled Stamp out Misogyny at Ulster Rugby, which was organised by the Belfast Feminist Network.
Inside the ground there were no counter-protest placards backing the players, although one young girl wore a T-shirt with the words “I support Paddy Jackson”.
It is highly likely that Vodafone, one of the Irish team’s main sponsors, or Kingspan or Bank of Ireland, would have taken a very dim view of Jackson and Olding being permitted to renew their playing careers with the province. Bank of Ireland, which has sponsored Ulster for 20 years, expressed its disquiet directly to the province and publicly earlier this week.
Where to now for Jackson and Olding? Which club owners in England or France or elsewhere will want to take them on now? They may have issued unreserved apologies and expressed their remorse, but those crude, derogatory and disrespectful text messages will follow them wherever they go.
Ultimately, despite the acquittal, there have been no winners in this terrible story.
Then again, the whole affair can only prompt the IRFU and its four provinces, not least its academies, to better educate their players.
The union and the provinces have a duty to do so, even more so now, and pointedly their statement in confirming the contracts of Jackson and Olding have been revoked also vowed “to conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes”.
And ultimately, if this whole sorry story serves as a salutary warning to all young players not to treat young women in a misogynistic or derogatory way, then some good will at least have come from it.