Little has been mentioned of the continued human rights abuses which have taken place under the regime of the club’s paymasters in Abu Dhabi, writes Tommy Martin

If you are in the business of sifting through the big societal issues raised by high-profile court cases, then the Belfast rape trial is the gift that keeps on giving.

The accused have been acquitted; the players involved have been sacked; news reporters were even barred from an Ulster rugby press conference this week in a bid to bring the whole thing to a close — and it still hasn’t gone away, you know.

So, you can add questions about press freedom to a list of hot topics that already includes, at the last count: Sexual consent, the degradation of women, alcohol consumption, the prevalence of pornography, the legal system’s treatment of sexual assault complainants, the dangers of trial by social media, whether private correspondence should impact on public profile, macho culture within sport, and, as of last week, the role of sponsors as guardians of public morality.

The part played by key Ulster and Ireland rugby backers in the sacking of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding has grabbed a fair chunk of the post-trial analysis. Bank of Ireland, Kingspan, and Vodafone were among those to issue public statements voicing their concerns over the crude and degrading content of the players’ much-publicised WhatsApp messages.

“It is of paramount importance to Bank of Ireland that our sponsorship activity aligns with and supports our core values and reflects positively on Bank of Ireland through association,” a spokesperson told The Times Ireland edition.

Many have since pointed out the irony of one of the major Irish banks ascending the bully pulpit to lecture on matters of moral rectitude; these being, need we be reminded, the institutions that helped bankrupt a nation through their greed and, as an encore, sent thousands into unnecessary financial distress with the disgraceful tracker mortgage scandal.

Others have questioned why any sponsor should have the power to influence a process which saw two men lose their jobs, despite being found not guilty in a court of law, lest their employment impact on the sponsor’s ‘core values’.

However, the majority verdict from the jury of public opinion was that the IRFU and Ulster Rugby had done the right thing in cutting Jackson and Olding loose, the content of their WhatsApp banter viewed as incompatible with their role as sporting icons. So if the rugby-industrial complex has arrived at the ‘right’ decision in this case, is there anything to worry about? Why should we be alarmed that the moral cudgel, once the preserve of the archbishops, is now wielded by CEOs of blue-chip multi-nationals? Surely, these companies are chasing our grace and favour as consumers and, therefore, will use their influence in matters of public interest in a way that pleases us?

Hmmm.

The idea that sport should reflect and bolster the greater public moral fibre is a well-worn and much debated one. It illuminates discussions around doping, diving footballers, sledging, ball-tampering, cynical fouling, corruption, and all manner of disparate issues, but the moral climate doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

In Beyond A Boundary — one of the greatest sports books ever written — the West Indian author CLR James devotes much time to how the 19th century British public school system used cricket as a tool for the moral development of young boys, all the better for them to become upright Victorian gentlemen. It’s a notion that gave us the phrase “it’s just not cricket” and the idea that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Writing in the 1960s, James believed that cricket never recovered from the ‘Bodyline’ scandal of 1932, when the English captain Douglas Jardine ordered his players to tackle the brilliant Australian batsman Don Bradman by bowling the ball straight at his body. Decidedly not cricket, and what resulted was part sporting controversy, part diplomatic incident.

James frames Bodyline in the context of the time, a decade in which the world was marching towards war. “Bodyline was not an incident, it was not an accident, it was not a temporary aberration. It was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket…Today, cruelties and abominations which would have immeasurably shocked and permanently distressed in earlier ages are now a commonplace.” The point is to underline the shifting backdrop behind all discussions of morality and proper behaviour, not just sporting ones and, where in times past, Victorian rectitude, or, in Ireland’s case, Catholic orthodoxy might have led public mores, what guides us now?

It could be argued that the pursuit of human rights is the dominant force behind change in modern society and the seismic impact of the #MeToo movement would seem to back that up, as does the debate around the Belfast trial. After all, what is the demand to end to predatory sexual behaviour but the drive to treat all human beings the same?

However, how does that stack up with the fact that some human rights are more equal than others? Take the current Premier League champions, for example. The style in which Pep Guardiola’s side won this season’s title has beguiled the football world. They have been lauded in the days since for the quality of their football, perhaps the best ever seen in the English top flight, with the only caveat being the failure to add European glory, for now at least.

Yet, there has been little or no mention this week of the continued human rights abuses practised by City’s Abu Dhabi owners, because, well, everyone’s kind of heard it all before and — oh, look at that flick by Kevin de Bruyne!

So, just to recap: In January, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report criticising the ongoing torture of prisoners, mistreatment of migrant workers, and discrimination against women in the United Arab Emirates.

The report highlighted arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances of activists and critics, as well as abuses of workers’ rights.

But hey, you know all that, and there’s not much you can do about it and — oooh, nice goal Aguero!

Just as Bank of Ireland and Vodafone influence Irish rugby through their financial backing, so too do the Gulf States wield their power by bankrolling European football clubs. By doing so, they can mush together two seemingly opposing cultures — European working-class sporting movements and feudal Gulf petrostates — and, in the process, whitewash their abuses.

This is the kind of image-laundering sponsors are allowed by sport, exchanging a slice of their cultural caché for cold, hard cash. So, Bank of Ireland can cleanse themselves of financial misdeeds, and Abu Dhabi can make us forget about human rights.

Also, it’s this power that allows them to be the new moral arbiters. When it comes to the big decisions, he who pays the piper calls the tune, which is fine when most of us are happy to hum along, like with the Jackson/Olding decision, but whether it’s the Abu Dhabi sheikhs or, in the case of NFL sponsors clamping down on the Black Lives Matter anthem protests, sometimes the influence of big business on sporting ethics strikes a bum note.

Which is fitting, because when it comes to questions of morality in sport, it’s always about the bottom line.


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