THE joint decision by the IRFU and Ulster Rugby to cancel the contracts of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding was hardly a surprise, even to the two players themselves.
Any on- or off-pitch conduct by a player that provokes widespread revulsion and disgust is bound to reflect badly on the team itself, as well as on the sport overall.
It prompted an intense debate on their future. Matters came to a head last Friday when hundreds of women protested outside the Ulster Rugby grounds at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of the team’s first home game since the two players were acquitted of rape.
One protester carried a banner that read: “Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards Misogyny” — a neat take on the play by Frank McGuinness in order to highlight the kind of toxic masculinity that surfaced during the trial.
Much of the criticism of both players has focused on a series of sexually explicit WhatsApp conversations involving them and their friends about the sexual encounter at Jackson’s home in 2016.
By any standard, those messages went way beyond any Trump-like “locker-room talk”. They were vile, sexist,
degrading and — yes — misogynistic.
In arriving at the decision, the IFFU and Ulster Rugby said they “acknowledge our responsibility and commitment to the core values of the game: Respect, Inclusivity, and Integrity”. Cynics may say that the decision has more to do with the way corporate sponsors were spooked and that the players’ fates were sealed once Francesca McDonagh, Bank of Ireland’s first female chief executive, endorsed a statement on behalf of the bank expresing concern at “serious behaviour issues”.
In any event, their dismissal was inevitable. Anything less would have been seen as an endorsement of their off-pitch conduct.
One good thing to come out of this whole sordid affair
is that it has forced the IRFU to commit to reviewing its
educational programmes at every level of the game.
Part of that must be the IRFU educating itself and recognising that those who criticise the culture of misogyny in rugby are not spoil-sports but are helping to reconfigure it as a more inclusive enterprise.
There also needs to be far greater clarity about what is and what is not acceptable off the field. That could be part of a wider debate about the extent to which athletes should be role models.
Do they have to be exemplary in everything they do? No, but they shouldn’t shame themselves and their country like they did or like Conor McGregor did when he went on the rampage in New York.
Athletes don’t have to be saints but they must be made aware that representing your team or your country is a privilege, not a right. And with that privilege comes a responsibility to act in a sporting manner at all times.
These two young men enjoyed great acclaim but did not live up to the responsibility that came with it. They have paid a heavy price for that.