How pervasive is this culture of contempt?

The case cast light on a culture of contempt and entitlement in sport, but rugby in particular, and it would be fascinating to examine where the sympathies of Jackson’s and Olding’s team-mates lay, writes Paul Rouse

How pervasive is this culture of contempt?

In 2010, rumours swept through Melbourne that two Australian Rules footballers from the celebrated Collingwood club were about to be questioned by police.

The word was that they were being accused of involvement in a gang rape.

Anna Krien opened her award-winning book Night Games: A Journey to the Dark Side of Sport by documenting the reactions to the news.

She detailed how the retired footballer Peter Everitt tweeted: “Yet another alleged girl, making alleged allegations, after she awoke with an alleged hangover and I take it an alleged guilty conscience.”

Everitt added later: “Girls!! When will you learn! At 3am when you are blind drunk and you decide to go home with a guy IT’S NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO!”

His views found a certain sympathy in the opinion of Kerri-Anne Kennerley, a morning TV host who commented that the football players had “put themselves in harm’s way by picking up strays”.

Anna Krien delivered page after page of insight into the way in which certain Australian Rules players and their counterparts in rugby league engaged with women.

One typical manoeuvre was described by ‘Kate’, who had consensual sex with one player. That player subsequently left the bedroom to get a glass of water and a second player sneaked in and took his place in the bed. It was only after a while — and after further intercourse — that ‘Kate’ realised that the change had taken place and she had not consented to that change.

Around this and other stories, the culture was one where clubs closed ranks around players, lawyers were sent in to do the necessary, and stories disappeared down the rabbit hole of ‘he says, she says’.

What emerged, most of all, was the extraordinary sense of entitlement that pervaded the way in which certain men who made their living at the elite end of sport in Australia conducted themselves.

More precisely, their contempt for women was deep and undeniable.

This fusion of entitlement and contempt was on display over the past two months in the trial in Belfast of two Irish international rugby players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, accused of rape.

The men were found not guilty of all charges, but the evidence produced at the trial revealed how entitlement and contempt framed a culture of behaviour that was created and pursued and celebrated.

To describe this as ‘rugby culture’ is wrong. It presumes that it is exclusive to that sport and is not something that could happen in soccer or GAA or in other sports.

And, allowing for the unanimous not guilty verdict in the case, rugby people who are appalled by the behaviour of Jackson and Olding — and their wider circle — do not deserve to be associated with their behaviour in any way.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the culture that was on view in the Laganside Magistrates Court was one that centred on rugby players and it raises some issues which are peculiar to rugby.

For example, the court heard that the complainant had initially hesitated to go to the police because: “Ulster Rugby will vouch for their good character and I’ll look like a stupid little girl.”

Indeed, the raw detail of the private text and WhatsApp messages offered as evidence in the case present two opposing perspectives on broader cultural matters.

On the day after the night out, the complainant wrote to a friend of hers: “They are scum. It’s that schoolboy rugby attitude times a million.”

By contrast, a WhatsApp message sent by Blane McIlroy (a defendant in the case alongside Jackson and Olding, in which he was charged and found not guilty of exposure) to one of his own friends read: “Pumped a girl with Jacko on Monday. Roasted her. Then another on Tuesday night.”

In other words — just as Krien revealed was the case in Australian Rules and Rugby League — this was something to be boasted about. And repeated. Basically, it is a culture.

The complainant raised the point about a ‘schoolboy rugby attitude’ (all four on trial played with or against each other in schoolboy rugby).

It must be pointed out that the culture on view in Belfast would not be acceptable in any way to many who are involved in schoolboy rugby.

Nonetheless, it would be fascinating to know how many other members of the overlapping WhatsApp groups who featured in evidence in the case were themselves past pupils of the elite schools of Belfast where rugby is so essential to school life.

Who exactly are the other men who were not present on the night but asked such questions as: “Boys, did you pass spit roast brassers”, and “Why are we all such legends?”, and “Any sluts get fucked?”

What would also be fascinating to examine would be where the sympathies of Paddy Jackson’s and Stuart Olding’s team-mates in Ireland and Ulster lay during the course of the case.

Is it imagined that being part of a team or being a ‘band of brothers’ or identifying with some unbreakable bond somehow demands a type of loyalty that trumps everything else?

Did team-mates think that their mates were being unfairly stitched up, that the woman who was at the centre of the rape trial was — as one of the defendants (Harrison) wrote — “just a silly girl who done something then regretted it”?

This was a line of questioning that was pursued by Paddy Jackson’s lawyer, Brendan Kelly QC, who put it to the complainant during cross-examination: “You were petrified that either the rumour or the proof of this sexual activity would find its way to your friends. That’s what drove you on as far as running with this lie, is it not?”

And it was a line that Kelly returned to with some vigour in his closing statement.

Seeking comfort in such a scenario offers no respite from the culture that was revealed in the WhatsApp and text messages that were brought before the court.

Ultimately, this is not a thing that can just be passed off as boys being boys, or young men sowing their wild oats, or routine promiscuity.

And it is not a thing that is just about a flawed individual or actions undertaken in drink or navigating nuanced sexual relationships between men and women where regret and guilt and even remorse are not uncommon in the cold light of morning.

Nor is this about the impulses that draw men and women to make choices around sexual preferences and sexual activity, with all the slips and complications and space that must be allowed for personal taste.

Some of those aspects run through this story, but its meaning lies elsewhere.

When it comes down to it, that meaning is to be found in a poisonous culture of contempt and entitlement that corrodes all else.

The question is: How pervasive is that culture?

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