Irish Rugby was right to disown its stars

Image credit: Nikki Eames

On 28th March 2018, Irish rugby stars Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of the rape of a woman. #Ibelieveher trended locally and nationally on Twitter. Petitions, both in favour of and against the men returning to the field, (and scuffles in the rabbit warren that is Facebook’s comment section) erupted. There were protests outside the City Hall and the Kingspan stadium, Ulster Rugby’s sacred ground. I returned home from the frenzy of an eight week Cambridge term to the destabilising sense that the societal values I assumed were fundamental - respectful and dignified treatment of women - were fodder for debate.

As of this week, both Olding and Jackson have had their contracts terminated at a club and national level. During the court process, misogynistic messages they had sent over Whatsapp had been submitted as evidence. The IRFU cited the messages - not the settled case- as contravening their core values of "respect, inclusivity and integrity". The messages have become, in my mind, emblematic of the kind the sexism the trial has exposed. I was alarmed that while Jackson, 26, was being described as "baby-faced" in the Belfast Telegraph, the claimant’s bloodied underwear was being unceremoniously passed around the courtroom and her sexual history similarly dissected online. It felt at times that we had forgotten who, exactly, was meant to have been on trial.

Some of the player’s supporters have responded to the dismissal with the generic claim that the messages the men sent are "just the way men talk" and argue most would have similarly degrading messages peppering their group chats. While I contend that we should hold men to a higher moral responsibility than accepting the former necessitates, of the latter I make no dispute. However, this does not negate the need for swift and demonstrative punishment, elevating need, instead, into necessity. The ubiquity of attitudes that betray a seething and insidious hatred of women should not excuse those that hold them; rather, they should alarm those of us who do not. To put it simply, your position on corporation rugby’s decision to disown the players indicates what you will and will not tolerate. I am proud to support the decision to send a message that fervent misogyny is of the second camp.

Ireland is poised for a profound cultural shift. It feels, now, that the issues of consent, male strength in possession, and female autonomy are approaching a critical point of antagonism. For their part, the messages act as a case study of a disparate and distorted conception of what it means to be a man. There is something pitiful, for example, about Olding’s message that "we are all top shaggers". It gestures at self-affirmation and glorification and instead points, much more deftly, towards insatiable insecurity. It is the paradox of performative masculinity that its fiercest proponents are also its most willing victims. I will not go so far as to say that the greatest victims of hyper-masculine ideals are men - that fallacy is heir to the storied tradition of diminishing and excusing female suffering - but it is worth nothing that men shoulder some of the burden of societal expectation. The problem of reform is complicated by the fact that those who are most in need of help (those who define themselves solely by a distorted image of manhood) are the most vehement in their disavowal that those ideals are flawed at all.

This trial has been unpleasant, but the momentum it has garnered affords us an opportunity to reform and redefine our conceptions of masculinity and consent. Let us now harness this moment to ensure the flame of public discourse does not dwindle into social stagnation; a return to the status quo is a disservice to the many victims of sexual assault who are stifled by the current culture of boorish entitlement. Supporting Ulster Rugby and the IRFU’s decision to drop these players need not be a comment on the ‘not-guilty’ verdict. Both those who accept and condemn the jury’s decision to acquit should recognize these men cannot return to their symbolic positions. Supporting contract termination is a choice we can - and should - all make, as a signal that the days in which this particular brand of masculinity can dominate are numbered. We cannot allow a culture to fester in our stadiums, schools, and homes in which these players are lauded as gods but not accountable as men.





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