SHANE McGRATH ON PARTISAN FANS
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.