Wednesday 20 June 2018

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Comment: Opportunity exists for sport to instil proper values

Kobe Bryant. Photo: Aly Song/Reuters
Kobe Bryant. Photo: Aly Song/Reuters

Eamonn Sweeney

The IRFU had to get rid of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Because when a player plays for a team, he implicates not just that team but all its supporters in his behaviour.

I've been thinking about Kobe Bryant lately. Back in 2004, the former Los Angeles Lakers and USA basketball star was accused of rape by a 19-year-old hotel employee. The charges were eventually dropped when the alleged victim declined to testify.

Bryant settled with her out of court and later confessed that perhaps what he thought at the time was consent hadn't really been consent.

Like Jackson and Olding, Bryant had been convicted of nothing yet had apparently acted in an unsavoury manner. It did not affect his career. He continued with the Lakers and became a basketball legend.

Last month, at the very Oscars ceremony supposed to showcase the concerns of the '#MeToo' movement, he received the award for best short film and was cheered to the rafters. Bryant's sporting prowess was enough to make people, in a town where the Lakers rule, overlook the less palatable aspect of his past.

This happens with sport. It's in the nature of supporters to be partisan and to become completely caught up in the present moment. In those moments they don't worry much about the moral calibre of the star they're cheering for.

Had Paddy Jackson returned to the Irish team, there would have come a moment when he too was cheered on. People who had reservations about his return would have forgotten themselves entirely had his contribution been spectacular enough, a 78th-minute winning try against the All Blacks for example.

Those cheers would have been read as redemption, as absolution, as approval of his past behaviour. By putting him in a green jersey, Irish rugby would have declared that they were unequivocally on Paddy Jackson's side.

In fact, every cheer for an Ireland team with Paddy Jackson on it or an Ulster side including Stuart Olding would have placed both the supporters and the game of rugby itself on the side of the men and their two co-defendants. This could not happen.

A great writer, Ford Madox Ford, once wrote when recommending a book by another one, Jean Rhys: "One likes to be connected with something good and Miss Rhys's work seems to me to be so very good that I wish to be connected with it."

It's natural to want to be connected with something good. But it's essential, as far as possible, to avoid being connected with the bad.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of all charges in a court of a law and we must accept that. However, the revelations - once reporting restrictions were lifted - of their behaviour the day following the incident which led to the court case cast them in a poor light as human beings. The boasting, the jesting and the exchange of pornographic videos after a night which at least one of their party knew had been upsetting for the girl involved can, I think, be fairly described as bad. A sporting organisation which demonstrated even tacit support for such behaviour would not deserve anyone's respect.

Sport can learn from the case and its aftermath. For one thing, the IRFU's decision is an important break with one of the most perfidious notions in sport, the bunker mentality which stresses the necessity of teams forming a united front against the rest of the world. We hear it over and over again; praise of 'omerta', of players 'sticking together no matter what' and 'having each other's backs'. These are perhaps admirable qualities in someone seeking advancement in the Mafia or fighting a war but they're not much use in creating a properly rounded human being.

In fact, their emphasis on a kind of defensive conformism and gang mentality means they can contribute to a kind of moral blindness. How many awful things have gone unpunished because 'the Lads' stuck together and had each other's backs?

Young men pay a lot of heed to their coaches, perhaps more than they do to their teachers. With this great power comes great responsibility but also a great opportunity. In the aftermath of the Belfast case there have been calls for schoolboys to be educated about the concept of 'consent'. You can't argue with that but the message would be even more powerful if reinforced by managers, most of whom are decent people whose eyes have probably been opened to the dangers of unrestricted machismo over the past few weeks.

There is a battle to be won. Last week a list of girls' names was written on the walls of a boys' toilet in a secondary school in Mallow. The girl who received the most ticks, the reporter explained, would be raped. It is foolish to deny that this mentality exists.

There are young men who would have exulted at the verdict in the Belfast case and believed it gave them carte blanche for similar behaviour. It would be nice to think that sport could contribute to eradicating such attitudes. Creating a society where everyone is treated with respect is a lot more important than the result of any game.

Sport can play a big part in the struggle for social justice. It can also, through the promotion of values which badly need to be re-examined, contribute to making things worse.

Which side are you on?

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