Ewan MacKenna on Belfast rape trial: Uncomfortable questions raised about our heroes, our sportsmen, ourselves
In the sphere of sports writing, you become privy to a chapter's worth of troubling stories. Given the type of content involved, a surprising amount check out and while you may not want to hear them, well, want and need are two very different things.
Some heroes you really shouldn't meet.
Take this as a starter from a few years back. A known player for a country at the upcoming World Cup was in a busy living room at a house party when he demanded that one of the female guests give him oral sex there in front of some team-mates. When she refused, he spat into her face.
Don't for a second think such tales belong exclusively to those at the zenith of the most wealthy game either or solely to those abroad. In terms of Ireland this past while we've had a prominent GAA player beat up a prostitute on a team holiday upon finding out she was transsexual; a major name becoming involved with an intermediary rather than gardaí after subjecting a victim to acts that required an apology; numerous group sex incidents including a female running from a hotel room when players emerged from a wardrobe; Olympians secretly filming themselves with an unsuspecting lady; a woman fleeing the country in shame after a night demeaned by rugby players...
And on it goes. In light of the Ulster rugby trial, that lot came to mind, but so too did another story.
In a pub not long ago, a yarn was recounted about a famous face. A married man on a training week abroad with his county, he was awoken by a call from his wife only to find himself in the house of a local woman.
He lied and said he was out sightseeing in the main square and when his spouse demanded photo evidence he had to jog five kilometres to the centre with a pounding headache.
Most upon hearing it laughed and by the standards of what goes on it was very tame. But where does one issue end and another begin and where do you draw a line? There's no clear resolution to that and in an era where answers are usually a click away, that confuses a great many.
This is not to say most, or even more than a few sportsmen and men alike, behave this way; but it does shift a responsibility on to those with any decency for neither their silence nor tolerance are good enough.
If you're disgusted, that's fine. If you're surprised though that leads us towards the beating heart.
Here's a question that shows the uncertainty with all of this. If you don't think Paddy Jackson or Stuart Olding should ever play for Ulster or Ireland again, then can you state clearly why not?
That's not to claim they aren't odious for while the jury has now cleared them, texts circulating in various WhatsApp groups long ago had them morally guilty by even the lowest of standards.
Some of the messages on one of the WhatsApp groups included:
- Unidentified friend: "Any sluts get f***ed?"
- Olding: "We are all top shaggers"
- Olding: "There was a bit of spit roasting goin' on last night fellas..."
- Jackson: "There was a lot of spit roast last night."
- Olding: "It was like a merry-go-round at the carnival."
Creeps all and every nerve and sinew ought to crawl before you even think that probably the only sportsperson more privileged than a pro rugby player here is an American quarterback whose parents are hedge fund managers. There's a reflex too, and perhaps not a bad one, to shine a light on coaches who would now take them under their wing as what line do you cross to win and when do sports fans realise not all players have to be cheered and not all jerseys need to be purchased?
But again ask yourself that question. Why shouldn't they play? This is a conflict that's raging.
Alan Quinlan suggested from the IRFU perspective there might be some sort of way they can wriggle free by saying it brought the game into disrepute but why, given the ruling of not guilty?
Other rugby players in the past have done similar; to the point, video emerged of two, so why is that different?
And isn't non-guilty behaviour of sportsmen in bedrooms bringing their jobs into disrepute a tad arbitrary? In terms of their playing days here, most agree they need to be ended, but we don't know and cannot articulate why. That's not solid ground to stand on and end careers.
Let's step back from the case, for only then can you understand it. This goes far beyond one night and one woman and a group of jocks, for they are just part of a prevailing culture.
When Donald Trump called his own similar sentiments locker-room talk, the urge was to say that's not the case in sports; but for once he may have been right.
Indeed a surprising amount of males on Twitter during the week, from Laois footballers to Drogheda United soccer players to the general population, were quick to pull a knife and demand punishment for the woman in question.
There are those who will point to the toxicity of social media in such moments and they'd be right, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored. Such sites have given a window into the collective psyche and, while it may be unsettling, it's also telling with regards to what we are faced with.
There's still a startling number of men happy to hide behind the boys-will-be-boys and she-was-asking-for-it undertones. It makes you wonder what goes on in the mind of a person who celebrates a rape trial verdict as if a victory for their gender and as if vindication for acts that shouldn't ever have taken place? Never get your hopes up around a social conscience forming.
Still, even accepting the bar these days is low, to insist a woman answer for feeling violated is scary, not least because as much as beyond reasonable doubt is a vital component of the legal system, not guilty beyond reasonable doubt also does not mean innocent.
Yet so many looked at this as a blood sport; that either the guys were winners therefore the woman was a loser and losers cannot be stomached, or that she had been wronged and retribution must come. There was the usual need to deal in definitives when nothing with a case like this can or should be treated as such.
So much has been unpleasant.
The big bucks lawyer with his "phenomenal court presence" brought in to defend those who could afford a better chance. A line of questioning that she must have known a famous rugby player as if it was relevant.
In fact even the front page of this paper yesterday which read 'No grey area on sexual consent – rugby legend' was an inadvertent hat tip towards part of the problem. What does sporting status or any status have to do with the weight of one's views on rape? We've gotten our value systems beyond muddled.
If you want to delve into the psychology of it in terms of sportsmen and sex, there's a case to be made around their view of a success involving someone else failing. There's a case to be made about praise for their aggressive and dominant on-field behaviour and them exhibiting that same behaviour off it.
There's a case to be made that it's not just sportsmen but men in general, with their belief in their right to do as they want, both heightened and excused by their fame and their fortune. As an example from a less severe but equally telling realm, not long back one rugby player was drunk in a college bar, and simply spat at those going past. Nothing happened. Who he was took precedence over what he did.
The flip-side is how much tolerance is needed, and how much understanding is acceptable? There has been some sense talked with calls for sporting associations to address their sportsmen but even wise words take us back to that troublesome confusion.
For instance, should adults have to be taught the most basic morality because they are good at sport? Must we try and reconcile the most simple notion of care and respect with a need to educate on common decency?
It's just one of the endless grey areas as even principles that seem clear cut, like no means no, fall into that category for it implies yes means yes when women don't know the weight of pressure, or what they are saying yes to, or the consequences of their decisions until later.
In 2014, Australian journalist Anna Krien brilliantly documented the cult of power and sex that exists in sport in her award-winning book 'Night Games'. There was a litany of instances such as “pranks” involving swapping partners in the dark, of gangbangs being a rite of passage, of it being overlooked with one club warning players "to make sure she leaves happy and then she won't complain".
Krien surmised it when adding: "Treating women like shit shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade into rape."
Yet we know all this and have done for some time, and despite all that there's still little stigma in sport or in society around this, no matter how bad it gets.
Worse is to come, for think about what's next via an on-tap supply of more and more aggressive pornography allied to an obsession with celebrity that excuses so long as it entertains. What happened in Belfast showed as much.
That's not to say there wasn't justified anger and upset, but so much more of this was to satisfy that modern lust for gossip and ratings, for fame and scandal.
Just consider that after the verdict, as a crowd gathered around Paddy Jackson, the woman left through a side door with few giving her a look or a thought when, regardless of what the jury said, she is the one people should care and have concern for. It was a microcosm of an issue far bigger than even this trial as, with answers needed, it just raised more uncomfortable questions.
About our sportsmen.
About our icons.
About our heroes.