The decision on Saturday by Ulster Rugby and the IRFU to revoke the contracts of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding prompts two key questions:
- What influenced the sports bodies to bring the players’ contracts to a premature end, despite them being acquitted of serious sexual offence charges?
- What can the sport do, by way of education programmes and the like, to ensure it does not have to take such action again.
The answer to the first question appears straightforward: Ulster and the IRFU made it clear in their Saturday press statement that, having carried out an internal review, it deemed the behaviour of the players in question, their acquittal notwithstanding, to have breached “core values” espoused by the game of rugby in Ireland and namely respect, inclusivity and integrity.
Neither sports body — the IRFU had a legal representative at the Belfast trial in a monitoring capacity — pointed to any specific aspect of the evidence which formed the basis for its decision. Speculation has, however, focused on the graphic nature of the various WhatsApp messages sent among the four defendants on the day after the alleged sexual assault.
The legal basis for the decision to revoke the contracts of Jackson and Olding is likely to have been a “conduct unbecoming” clause found as standard in professional sports contracts globally.
This is usually a “catch-all” type of disciplinary clause, allowing a sports body to summarily terminate a player’s contract of employ ment for gross misconduct, any breach of the sports body’s existing policies, codes or regulations, or any conduct that might otherwise bring the sport in question or the player into disrepute.
An interesting and related point here is that large corporate sponsors of sport often have similar “moral clauses” included in their sponsorship arrangements with individual sports participants and sporting bodies. For instance, individual corporate sponsors quickly deserted all three of the Australian cricket players involved in last month’s ball-tampering incident in the Test series against South Africa. It is estimated that captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner will suffer A$5m (€3.14m) each in lost earnings and endorsements.
Cricket Australia (CA), who banned both of the above players for a year for bringing the sport into disrepute, also lost out when wealth-management company Magellan terminated its three-year sponsorship agreement with them in response to the ball tampering scandal. Magellan’s sponsorship agreement, which was in the form of a naming rights arrangements, had only started last year and was reportedly worth A$20m (€12.56m).
Returning to Ireland, the pressure exerted by sponsors on Ulster Rugby and the IRFU cannot be ignored.
In November of last year, Bank of Ireland (BOI), which has had deals with all four provinces, celebrated the 20th anniversary of its sponsorship links with Ulster Rugby.
Last week, BOI issued a statement saying that it was “highly concerned regarding the serious behaviour and conduct issues which have emerged as a result of the recent high-profile trial”.
The role that sponsors might have as moral guardians of a sport’s values is a complicated one. In May of this year, we may finally get a US federal court hearing in a case involving cyclist Lance Armstrong. In this complicated case, the US government is suing Armstrong on behalf of the US Postal Service. The claim is that it would not have paid US$32.3m (€26.2m) to sponsor Armstrong’s cycling team from 2000 to 2004 if it had known he was violating the sponsorship contract by doping.
Armstrong’s defence will be that he did not finally confess to doping until 2013 and that during the four-year period in question, with Tour de France victories included, US Postal got exactly what they had bargained for and more in terms of promotional value from its cycling sponsorship.
In Australia, one of rugby union’s key sponsors, Qantas, has expressed concern at Israel Falou’s comments that “gay people will go to hell unless they repent their sins and turn to God”. Rugby union in Australia, faced with falling participation rates, poor Test crowds and an A$3.8m (€2.4m) operating deficit in 2017 must balance the concerns of a key sponsor and its espoused values of inclusivity against the backdrop of a fierce public debate on a player’s right to free speech.
Returning to Ireland, the BOI has welcomed Ulster Rugby and the IRFU’s announcement to further conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes, within the game in Ireland, to ensure the importance of its core values are clearly understood, supported and practised at every level of the game.
In Australia, the AFL had to undergo a similar process, given multiple and often egregious incidents of player misbehaviour towards women in the 2000s, culminating in the trial and acquittal of a player on rape charges at a party in the aftermath of the 2010 AFL Grand Final. If I was involved in the IRFU’s internal review process, the first thing I would get other panel members to do would be to read Anna Krein’s searing account of that Australian trial. The second thing I would do is direct the IRFU to the AFL’s codes of conduct on respect and responsibility, which emerged in the aftermath of the above incidents.
The AFL’s policy is considered best practice in the area and includes player education programmes on sexual assault, consent, violence, harassment — physical and online — and how abuse can affect the lives of women and girls.
Despite a media storm, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby took some time in deciding whether or not to revoke Jackson and Olding’s contracts. This was the right and proper thing to do with respect to their contractual obligations towards the players.
The IRFU and Ulster Rugby (and Irish sport more generally) also has a wider obligation to ensure that the personal integrity of all those who play and support the game is respected and protected. For some outside of sport, the very fact that Irish professional players may need dedicated programmes on respectful relationships, the meaning of consent, etc, will be seen to reflect badly on Irish sport.
That may be so, but misconduct in sport is often reflective of misconduct in our society more generally, as the recent revelations of a rape list at a Cork secondary school and incidents of campus assaults in our universities suggest.
This means that whatever about individual sports participants being role models, the IRFU itself now has an opportunity to be a role model in developing programmes that better educate its future players on how to respect others and themselves physically, sexually and online.
Beyond apologies, expressions of regret or even hashtags of support, one young woman in Belfast, at the very least, deserves that future.