Role models

A weekly sports column by the Free Press

Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland just had one of the biggest athlete-related criminal court cases in recent years.

Two Ulster and Ireland rugby players faced maximum life sentences for alleged rape and two of their friends faced indecent exposure and accessory-to-the-crime charges. All four of them were acquitted after a 20-month trial and will be able to resume their daily lives.

The two rugby players will be allowed to play again for Ulster and Ireland if called upon and this has fans of both teams sitting in different camps. Should they be able to play or should they not be allowed?

I am in the latter camp.

Professional athletes are still representing a business and are still employees and should be regarded as such by the public. Not only would it be a public relations disaster if either team retained the services of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding (the two players) I think the stands at games would be a little emptier and TVs on game day might have been tuned to something differently and rightfully so.

Another thing prevalent in the headlines was the group of four’s messages on the social media app, WhatsApp. Most of them in the immediate aftermath of the complainant’s alleged ordeal consisted of bragging, dirty terms and other degrading words towards the woman.

The full transcript and timeline involving all parties with the WhatsApp messages are available to view online.

While the content of the messages between the four men are no crime and they have been acquitted of all charges, it is still telling of their behaviour and attitude.

The “boys will be boys” attitude is probably more prevalent in sport than anywhere else, maybe even more so in professional sports where athletes and the institutions they belong to hold influence and power over their community.

There was one exchange on WhatsApp in the transcript and discussed during the court proceedings between the complainant and one of her friends. The friend begs the complainant to go to the police, in which she responds with “I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea, because that’ll work.”

Teams have a history of being lenient or dismissive when it comes to its athletes doing morally questionable things in their personal lives but have seemed to have changed their tune and have suspended contracts in recent years. But if the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that society will not accept the “boys will be boys” attitude in people supposed to be role models.

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