Tuesday 22 October 2019

Neil Francis: Jackson and Olding's demise has been brought about principally by the power of sponsors and public opinion

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding
Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

And so the inevitable has happened and Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have been dispatched by the IRFU and by their province.

A legal and contractual minefield has been negotiated and I suspect there was compensation - the scale of which nobody in the public domain will likely learn, a non-disclosure agreement will see to that. The two players pay for their unacceptable behaviour but this episode has brought about many unsatisfactory elements which are worthy of examination.

Irrespective of whether there were breaches of expressed terms or implied conditions in their contracts or whether they were guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, their demise has been brought about principally by the power of sponsors and public opinion. These two drivers are a combustible cocktail.

We have seen, over the last 10 years, sponsors flexing their muscle when it comes to how they see an employee of their sponsored code or union behave, whether it is in a disreputable manner or contrary to the views and ethos of a particular company.

We recently saw severe sanction handed out to cricketers Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft who were involved in the Australian ball-tampering 'scandal'. The shame heaped upon them was significant and this was compounded by the financial penalties to the players and the Australian Cricket Union. Magellan plc, a main sponsor, cut their ties immediately, their brand and bona fides intact. Their relationship going forward was untenable, but more importantly this is what their customers would expect them to do.

A secondary sponsor, the Commonwealth Bank, also cut their ties and they issued the following statement: "We continue to be proud sponsors of women's cricket, indigenous cricket, cricketers with disabilities and grassroot cricket across the country." All the basics covered there so, maybe political correctness gone mad, and the statement, depending on your perspective, either laudable or laughable. Men's cricket in Australia is the premium brand and that is where Commonwealth Bank would get their exposure. They could not cut off any of the other cricketing brands but in truth what exposure will they get here? It is a double-edged sword.

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We look at gymnastics, and the Larry Nassar scandal in the US and the horrors of sexual depravity as they unfolded in a courtroom in relation to his dealings with nearly all of the female gymnasts under his care. A horror story, yet their sponsors Procter & Gamble and Kellogg's were slow cutting ties and received significant negative publicity for their failure to do so promptly.

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Also in the US, the huge Papa John's pizza chain took a strong view on all of the black athletes and indeed some of their white confreres who sat or knelt when the American national anthem was being played. As usual the country was polarised between 'freedom of expression' and disrespect to the flag and national anthem.

The NFL were quite happy to let things take their course. Donald Trump's comments only inflamed the situation. But when Papa John's pulled all of their advertising and sponsorship, the owners of every NFL franchise were instructed to get their house in order. That is real power.

Bank of Ireland made public their concerns last week in the aftermath of the Belfast rape trial. I find it richly ironic that any bank or financial institution would act as a moral authority on any matter given their record in this country. Most of the IRFU sponsors were contacted by members of the media. All of them had prepared statements advising of their concern and that they were waiting for the outcome of the review.

The IRFU would not have been unaware of their sponsors' unease. In their 2017 financial accounts the union had gross revenues of €75m. Of this, €12m came about through commercial activities - the bulk of this we assume is sponsorship. So, 16 per cent of your turnover derived from sponsorship. That is the difference between running your business efficiently and being involved in constant financial struggle.

Anne O'Leary, CEO of Vodafone, and Francesca McDonagh of Bank of Ireland, two main sponsors of Ireland and Ulster, would not countenance a situation where they would continue to sponsor the IRFU while Jackson and Olding were retained. The IRFU only had one course of action.

It was very interesting to see how the stand-off between Qantas and the Australian Rugby Union finished. Qantas have been the name sponsor to the Wallabies for the last 10 years - they are known as the Qantas Wallabies. The sponsorship is worth about A$10m (€6.3m) per annum. The Wallabies' star full-back Israel Folau made a statement on Twitter saying that gay people would burn in hell. Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas, a gay man who grew up in Dublin, obviously took grave exception to these comments. The sponsorship was on the line unless Folau withdrew the comments and apologised. Folau refused to do so. A very tricky situation ensued.

Folau is from an ethnic minority within his country and is from a small Christian church. He firmly believes in what he said. Folau is also key for Australia and a cross-code player; at any time he could play in the AFL or the NRL. It would be a huge loss to the Wallabies if he left. Rugby Australia spoke to Folau about his behaviour but no sanction was imposed and Folau was retained and more importantly so was the sponsorship. Compare this situation with the principles of the Irish situation, who would be offended most? It is a minefield.

The whole situation has almost become a proxy war. The Belfast feminist movement that protested outside Kingspan Stadium on Friday night had every right to be there but I feel like we are back in the 1970s and there is a slightly unreal situation where we have secondary picketing.

The two rugby players were found not guilty. What came out in court in relation to their WhatsApp comments was unacceptable yet I would suspect that some of the language and thoughts on the WhatsApp chats of many young men on this island would not be too different, whatever their background. Demanding education programmes within rugby to combat misogyny on the back of the comments by the Ulster players isn't going to achieve a huge amount because all of the people involved knew what they were saying was inappropriate.

I do think Jackson and Olding should have received a severe reprimand and a ban but they have paid the price for their actions. Neither it seems will play for Ulster or Ireland again, which is a very heavy sanction and will, whether they like it or not, define their lives. The girl in question has also paid a high price. This episode will never be forgotten from her perspective.

It is a matter of regret that this will rumble on and the media will report which clubs the players join and will mention any significant event on or off the field until their careers are over. After watching the events of the last couple of months I don't think that any rugby player on this island will need any education programme to alter how they conduct themselves in society.

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