Danny Hughes: GAA players can take lessons from rugby rape case

The GAA world can take lessons from the trial of former Ulster Rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding over off-field behaviour

I AM a relative newcomer when it comes to Twitter. I am on Facebook and use LinkedIn for work profiling.

Aside from sharing my own work, I rarely comment. The way I look at it, this primarily revolves around covering my own back.

I share my opinions in my column so I don’t feel the need to comment as much as others on social media.

The recent high profile legal case which involved Ulster Rugby stars Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson could well have involved any two individuals in any sport, soccer or Gaelic football or even hurling.

It just so happens that two rugby players and their sport were on trial in this instance.

Indeed, it wasn’t enough that this was being played out by all and sundry on social media and in print. Laois player Gary Walsh decided it was wise to comment on Twitter in this particular case.

Because of this he missed a National League final. I can tell you that the opportunity to play in any final in Croke Park is a rarity. From a management perspective I can only imagine it is infuriating that one of your main players misses an important game due to pure stupidity.

As the recent probe into Cambridge Analytica confirms, when you hold a social media account you can take it for granted that everyone and anyone can use your personal data and indeed access it.

Whenever you post something on Facebook or Twitter, there is no going back. It’s out there.

The same applies to the likes of WhatsApp.

Sporting bodies and potential employers can, with the click of a button, profile you.

I recall, as GPA rep for Down, when social media accounts first came on the scene, we were advised in no uncertain terms that if inter-county players were found to bring the association into disrepute, they could expect to be banned and punished for their actions. It was pretty clear.

The beauty with print media means that there is editing and checking taking place prior to articles going to print and the final say always rests with the editor if it’s deemed inappropriate.

For any person holding a social media account, there are no editors or moderators for their comments. There is no review of commentary from a legal expert.

In some cases, handing a social media account to some individuals, is like handing a rifle to a pig.

Society has changed to such an extent that we may be more connected to others than ever before, yet as individuals we have never felt as isolated.

Even if we feel that we don’t talk to each other enough and our opinion doesn’t matter, social media is definitely not the right testing ground in any case.

The outcome of the sackings of the two rugby players should serve as a warning shot to all sportsmen, including GAA players.

Guilty or otherwise, any verdict was only ever going to produce an inevitable outcome in terms of the players and their playing careers.

The standards Kingspan, Bank of Ireland and all other commercial sponsors of Ulster Rugby expect in return for their investment justifies their influence.

You will have some who will rage that outside influences such as corporate sponsors can carry this much sway in sport nowadays.

However, rugby, GAA and soccer have a model now which is totally dependent on commercial sponsorship. This concept is a game changer.

There was definitely a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ culture within GAA in the past, however, as the GAA model has changed in recent years, the Association has become a much more commercialised and indeed scrutinised environment.

It doesn’t matter if inter-county players themselves are receiving no financial reward from their participation.

Increasingly, inter-county GAA players are carrying the same responsibilities as rugby and soccer players operating in a professional environment.

The commercial pressure and not the moral rights and wrongs have caused this sea change.

There is a stream of thought that bashes the influence of commercialism on sport. However, one huge positive aspect is their potential influence on improving behaviours among sports stars.

It has meant that those individuals acting inappropriately or wrongly can potentially be punished in both the courtroom and in the pocket.

Now, as always, there are plenty of contradictions.

Tiger Woods may have lost a very lucrative contract with Gillette a few years ago. However, Nike continued to ‘stand by their man’. The financial implications of not standing by Woods may have arguably cost ‘the brand’ too much.

Closer to home, the various ssues surrounding Cathal McCarron’s admissions perhaps significantly boosted sales of his autobiography.

People love a comeback story, regardless of the past. So it can be very difficult to see the line and even harder for us to be judge, jury and executioner when there are so many contradictions within sport.

For inter-county players, such as Gary Walsh, the commercial reality is that you have a moral obligation when you represent your county to adhere to certain positive behaviours. In other words, you are never ‘off-duty’.

Whether in deed, action or word, accountability for actions reverberates throughout an individual’s space nowadays, especially those with any kind of profile.

Let’s not kid ourselves and assume that all male sports are squeaky clean, including the GAA. None of us can claim to be whiter than white.

What the commercial sponsorships do bring to sport increasingly is a sense of judgement about what’s right and wrong and what is acceptable and what is not.

The Laois County Board and indeed the team’s management should be praised for taking a moral stance in dropping Walsh for the League final.

Indeed, the crassness of Gary Walsh’s comments should be the focus of any ire and all our GAA players should take note.

Paid or not, inter-county players are now judged by more than just supporters and GAA fans either parochially or at national level.

It is commercial and corporate sponsors who also have an input. And as the recent ‘rugby rape trial’ eventually showed, what they say goes.

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