SPORTS fans protest about be­ing treated as mere con­sumers, val­ued for their spend­ing power rather than their loy­alty. But, in one re­spect, sup­port­ers have long been in­dulged, by the me­dia as well as their own teams, as much as the fussi­est shop­per or diner.

Just as the cus­tomer is al­ways right, so is the sup­porter.

No mat­ter how par­ti­san, hot­headed or un­rea­son­able their stance, play­ers or man­agers will rarely up­braid the fans.

And if they do, it is the power of the peo­ple that wins out.

They are re­spected as the heart of any great sport­ing move­ment: play­ers play and they re­tire, man­agers ar­rive and they leave. But the fans stay con­stant, cel­e­brated as sources of con­ti­nu­ity and undi­min­ish­ing pas­sion, stok­ing the eter­nal flame.

How­ever, their im­por­tance must not be mis­taken for in­fal­li­bil­ity. For the loy­alty that sus­tains fans through the bad days and that makes the good days so sweet, can also dis­tort per­spec­tive.

And the more tren­chant the sup­port, the more ex­treme the re­sul­tant dis­tor­tions.

The Ul­ster Rugby Sup­port­ers Club, who pro­claim them­selves the of­fi­cial sup­port­ers club of Ul­ster Rugby, suf­fer no lack of self-im­por­tance.

If pom­pos­ity was the only flaw in the state­ment they is­sued ear­lier this week, then they could be in­dulged.

But they also de­clared that ‘the vast ma­jor­ity of mem­bers’ who had con­tacted the group about the fu­tures of Paddy Jack­son and Stu­art Old­ing ‘have made it clear they wish to see their early re­in­state­ment to play­ing du­ties’.

‘In­deed, many have made it clear,’ went the state­ment, ‘that if this is not the case it will strongly in­flu­ence their de­ci­sion on sea­son ticket re­newal or their fu­ture Kingspan at­ten­dance.’

THE im­plicit threat of a boy­cott, and the con­se­quences this would have for Ul­ster’s rev­enues, was a new twist on the sup­port for Jack­son and Old­ing that had found its most vo­cif­er­ous ex­pres­sion through the sew­ers of so­cial me­dia.

Wil­lie John McBride is the pres­i­dent of this sup­port­ers’ club, and he was faith­ful to their line dur­ing his ex­cru­ci­at­ing in­ter­view with Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ Ra­dio One.

‘It’s very sad that they’ve all got caught up in this,’ he said, as if fa­mous pro­fes­sional ath­letes were un­wit­ting by­standers, swept up in a tor­nado like Dorothy in Kansas.

Pre­sum­ably, sup­port­ers be­lieve they are stay­ing true to their team and loyal to their pas­sions when de­mand­ing that Jack­son and Old­ing re­turn to the colours of Ul­ster with­out de­lay.

And their anger will be pre­dictably fierce fol­low­ing the in­evitable con­clu­sion of the IRFU re­view which ter­mi­nated the con­tracts of Jack­son and Old­ing.

But these fans are not, in the words of the pop­u­lar chant, stand­ing up for the Ul­ster­men when cham­pi­oning the causes of the play­ers.

In fact, they are suc­cumb­ing to noth­ing more than dumb trib­al­ism.

To ex­pect that Jack­son and Old­ing could re­turn to their glam­orous, hand­somely re­mu­ner­ated public lives was to ig­nore the type of be­hav­iour that emerged dur­ing their re­cent trial.

It was to sup­pose that not­guilty ver­dicts in a Belfast court­room ob­vi­ate the need for proper con­sid­er­a­tion of their be­hav­iour on that wretched night.

It was to make the wel­fare of the wo­man in­volved in the case sec­ondary to the dreary pri­or­i­ties of a bunch of tun­nelvi­sioned fans high on pom­pos­ity and un­able to ap­pre­ci­ate the enor­mous is­sues raised in re­cent weeks.

Much of the fall­out fo­cused on the cul­ture of rugby on this is­land, and that at­ten­tion is un­der­stand­able when a sup­port­ers’ club see fit to make a state­ment like that.

The im­pres­sion of a boor­ish, yob­bish cur­rent in the sport was also strength­ened by the emer­gence on so­cial me­dia of a pho­to­graph fea­tur­ing two play­ers from Belfast’s Malone rugby club.

One had a sticker bear­ing Jack­son’s name, the other Old­ing’s, and be­tween them was sand­wiched a tro­phy.

The ig­no­rance was as­ton­ish­ing.

It was proper that in yes­ter­day’s state­ment an­nounc­ing the ter­mi­na­tion of the play­ers’ con­tracts, the IRFU said it will re­view how rugby on this is­land is struc­tured to en­sure that val­ues of ‘re­spect, in­clu­siv­ity and in­tegrity’ are ‘clearly un­der­stood, sup­ported and prac­tised’ through­out the sport.

The is­sue of at­ti­tudes to women and sex in male sport­ing en­vi­ron­ments is not neatly con­fined to rugby, though. Any­one with a knowl­edge of Gaelic games or soc­cer has sto­ries to tell.

The prob­lem is not ram­pant in any sport, but nor is it prey­ing on just one.

What is cer­tain is that a ma­cho cul­ture does per­sist in male sport­ing en­vi­ron­ments. When that spills into ev­ery­day life, the dif­fi­cul­ties be­gin.

Not ev­ery dress­ing-room or train­ing field is a hot­house for chau­vin­ism, of course, but some of the ev­i­dence pro­duced in the Jack­son and Old­ing tri­als re­vealed rep­re­hen­si­ble at­ti­tudes.

How can Ul­ster’s sup­port­ers’ club not ap­pre­ci­ate this? And if they can, how can they not un­der­stand that this must carry con­se­quences?

Neil Best is a former Ul­ster and Ire­land player. On a rugby web­site ear­lier this week, he wrote that ‘the club [Ul­ster] and that sys­tem must shoul­der a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity for the char­ac­ter and be­hav­iour of the young play­ers it pro­duces. Rather than sus­pend­ing or sack­ing them, maybe Ul­ster should seek to fur­ther ed­u­cate them on the stan­dards and at­ti­tudes it ex­pects and re­view cur­rent pro­grammes to min­imise the prospect of one of their sys­tem’s prod­ucts ever re­motely be­com­ing in­volved in any­thing like this again’.

It is cer­tainly true that Ul­ster, the IRFU and ev­ery sport­ing body in the coun­try should use the af­ter­math of this con­tro­versy to re­mind ath­letes of their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

There are ex­pected modes of con­duct so ba­sic, though, that no adult should need to be walked through their im­por­tance, ei­ther by the team they rep­re­sent or by nervy spon­sors sweat­ing over how this all af­fects their in­vest­ment.

The sug­ges­tion that Jack­son and Old­ing could be re­tained by Ul­ster as ex­am­ples of what can hap­pen, and the pos­si­bil­ity of re­form, was frankly ridicu­lous.

NO TEAM or sports body should have to tell play­ers that the at­ti­tudes laid bare in the vile What­sApp mes­sages are wrong. Some trans­gres­sions sim­ply de­mand ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment. This fact con­tin­ues to elude those faith­ful Ul­ster fans who in­sisted that be­cause their men were found not guilty, then life could re­turn to its old grooves.

That wasn’t pos­si­ble and it is alarm­ing to sup­pose it could have been.

Here is a case of a fan-base con­fus­ing un­think­ing par­ti­san­ship and loy­alty. The stance they have taken does no ser­vice to Ul­ster, Ire­land or the sport they pro­fess to love.

Things will never be the same again. That is true for the young wo­man whose life has been con­sumed by this case. It goes for Jack­son, Old­ing, McIl­roy and Har­ri­son.

And that ap­plies to the sport of rugby on this is­land as well.

Lessons must be learned – by play­ers, ad­min­is­tra­tors but by sup­port­ers, too.

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