Wednesday 22 May 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Sacking Jackson and Olding was symptom-tackling and disease avoidance

Paddy Jackson, left, and Stuart Olding were sacked by Ulster
Paddy Jackson, left, and Stuart Olding were sacked by Ulster
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Last Tuesday at the Ulster Hall, the Freedom of the City of Belfast was conferred upon a man accused on three separate occasions and by three separate women of rape, of groping, and of sexual harassment.

The latter claim even involved a pay-off of $850,000, although he was never found guilty on any count. As for the night itself, it was widely celebrated in a room packed with some of the island's most influential dignitaries including many from corporate backgrounds.

By Friday, two-and-a-half miles down the road at the offices of Ulster Rugby, two players accused of rape, but who were never found guilty on any count, were called in and had their contracts revoked. It's believed the remainder of money owed to them was paid off although confidentiality clauses mean we'll never know the exact details. As for the night itself, with a game taking place in Ravenhill, some 200 or so from the Belfast Feminist Network were busy outside protesting.

The first person mentioned was Bill Clinton on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The others above were Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, just weeks after they walked free from court. It reminded that in many cases we don't see things as they are, rather we see things as we are.

There are some factors to keep in mind before we delve further into what is a sporting issue, but also a societal issue. While eyes are always drawn towards celebrity, and minds are easily directed towards instant and brief outrage due to its effortless popularity, in considering this the woman at the centre of the case shouldn't be shunted to the side. What should be though is raw emotion for, as hard as it is, logic needs to prevail in cases that are the most emotive. That's because, while the knee-jerk reaction to Ulster Rugby's decision is to heap praise, it raises a couple of key points.

One: Was terminating the contracts the right thing to do?

That's massively debatable.

Two: Was it done for the right reasons?

That's even more debatable still.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Back in the late '40s and early '50s, during the second Red Scare in the USA, Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy ushered in one of the most treacherous attacks on their basic freedoms. Based on the jumped-up threat of communism, and playing on pack mentality and easy witch-hunts for personal prominence and gain, an accusation against someone's ideology saw guilt bestowed with the need for the accused to prove their innocence as opposed than the other way around. It was devastating.

Instead of learning from such important history though, we're now well into an era of mimicking it. Social media has returned us to an ugly form of the McCarthy principle, with the Belfast trial a good illustration. When it came to Jackson and Olding, while a ruling of not guilty shouldn't equate to innocence given the burden of proof, a ruling of not guilty shouldn't equate to guilty either. Only it has done, and that ought to terrify when an accusation takes precedence over legal verdicts.

Polls playing to populism in Ireland have found that seven in 10 believe Ulster and the IRFU have done the correct thing. But how many of those same people asked themselves if they want to live in a society where a mob proclaiming guilt is more powerful than a jury clearing someone's name?

The truth is that the IRFU and Ulster Rugby haven't really told us what they sacked their players for, and we aren't fully sure they even know that much themselves. Instead they hid behind one of those phrases that sounds like it says much but actually says nothing, citing the "core values of the game - respect, inclusivity and integrity" in their statement. But what does that lot even mean, other than being the worst of marketing mush? Besides, if Ulster and the IRFU were so strong on a breach of rules they cannot actually show, and so sure of the moral ground upon which they stand, then why pay off the two players? Why not stand up for what they say they believe in?

Nobody is defending the grimiest old boys' club in Irish sport but it is to try and avoid the conflation of morality with legality, as there's a crucial need for separation there. That's the danger as red mist crosses over and consumes all. This column has and will continue to call Jackson and Olding out as odious - that much became clear the moment their jock-laden WhatsApps were seen – but morality is a tad arbitrary when it comes to tearing down employment contracts and careers.

What those messages simply reaffirmed to us was merely that many sportsmen (and men) privately view women as meat and treat them as such. If that was worthy of contract termination though, rugby might want to reduce itself from 15-a-side and other sports would shrink too. This is symptom-tackling and disease-avoidance. It's reactionary rather than progressive. And if we are serious about this, then a code of conduct has to involve consistency, clarity and involve no hypocrisy. Ulster and the IRFU are nought for three.

A few of years back a video did the rounds of a couple of Irish rugby internationals involved in a threesome with a woman, with another filming. The woman's career was destroyed to the point she had to leave the country and in that case the IRFU let it slide, which begs the question of what's okay and why? Is not guilty of a crime around a sex act, but texting vilely, punishable; and not guilty of a crime around a sex act, but filming and distributing it, okay? Where is the line? What is their ethics' policy? Why were the same standards not applied in the past? Will other players' private conversations be delved into and be acted upon now? And if they are not, then why not?

Some will point to social media guidelines but Jackson and Olding broke none as WhatsApp isn't social media, but a private messaging service, and the only reason such messages became public was via accusations they were cleared of. A friend during the week did ask if the same logic would apply if those messages, as an example, were racist. But it isn't what we think, rather what their employers do. And remember, when Jackson 'blacked up' as an African Olympian at a Halloween party a few years back, with the photo going public, those same employers were happy to keep on paying.

The theory is that, given the verdict, it was their messages that did them in though. We are not defending them but this doesn't add up. After all, Craig Gilroy was part of the conversation but he is still an Ulster player and that's not even the biggest gap in a patchwork story that reeks of firefighting and hiding the problem as opposed to actually addressing it.

Those WhatsApp messages were across Irish media, having emerged at the trial some 24 hours before Rory Best and Iain Henderson attended the courtroom. They happened to be there on a day the woman involved was giving testimony, and this after her own messages had initially said she saw no point in pursuing the rape claim as Ulster Rugby was intimidating and influential. Best maintained that no permission was sought by a national captain in the build up to a Six Nations game. And he said that he had to be there because someone else's counsel had told him to take in the environment as he was character witness, even though it never materialised. So where was Ulster and the IRFU's concern around that lot then, and where is their response now?

That Ulster banned news journalists from a Tuesday press conference, after some sports writers had even bemoaned the questioning at such gatherings being dominated by issues outside sport, showed how earnestly they are taking this, and prevented fair inquiries. But in the face of it all you'd want a throat as wide as a prop's shoulders to swallow so much nonsense. Indeed after this, it's hard to escape the feeling their actual code of conduct is not to get caught, and if you do you'd better hope public opinion doesn't grow and growl to the point sponsors get nervous. Which takes us back to the unacceptable idea that it's the claim and not the court that holds sway.

At the start of this week, the head of Ulster Rugby Shane Logan did finally get to his feet and put his head above the parapet. That he hadn't uttered a word in many months since it all began might seem excusable given legal matters, but that he said nothing in the weeks since the trial finished isn't, especially given the message he tried to put out there, along with the timing of that message.

He pointed to a serious mistake made by the players but didn't say what it was, and then added that the decision had nothing to do with sponsors. There was just one problem - Bank of Ireland had beaten him to the punch via their own statement that looked to exploit the incident to try and scrub their corporate name. "We note the statement from Ulster Rugby and the IRFU," it read. "We welcome the in-depth review of structures and education programmes which has been announced today, and look forward to the recommendations which arise being put into effect."

The cojones of these bankers were almost admirable as this is a company that has and continues to ruin many lives via their disgusting and greedy attitude. Worse, they have broken the law yet they are are happy to castigate those that hadn't actually broken any, and preach about some sort of moral guideline and about acting properly. It meant that, in the end, all that has happened was to cheapen and trivialise this mess by using it as a front for pandering to money.

Don't kid yourselves by just accepting what you're told and taking it at face value. The woman didn't matter; the not guilty matter; sportsmen's attitudes didn't matter; the bottom line did. Ultimately this jettisoning of Jackson and Olding has nothing to do with what is right, even if it might feel that way and be sold as such. Instead it's just another form of what is grossly wrong.

However the problem is that comforting lies have always been easier to digest than uncomfortable truths.

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