As a callow player and a sensitive young man, Adam Hastings couldn’t help himself. After every game, he’d rush back to the changing rooms, fetch out his phone, plug his name into Twitter and scour social media for comments about his performance.
Usually, he’d search for “Hastings”. Often, he wouldn’t have to. Not when frothing ‘supporters’ and faceless malcontents were tagging him in spite, venom that laid waste to already frail confidence.
Hastings, mercifully, has grown out of that routine and blossomed into a Test-calibre fly-half, but he is far from alone. The temptation to peer into this virtual abyss can be overwhelming, intoxicating even. The thirst for acclaim and the innate need to slap down those who abuse gets the better of so many. Only dark things can come of it.
Stuart Hogg, the Scotland captain, was also a name-searcher once upon a time. In a BBC interview this week, he spoke of how a single negative comment amid 99 messages of praise would fester and gnaw at him above all the rest.
He even suggested players might grow so afraid of an online savaging that they would shy away from trying things and serving up the rugby that everybody wants to devour. That is a truly sobering thought. But it is easy to see why it might come to pass.
“I hope you die,” one individual tweeted Chris Ashton after the wing moved from Northampton Saints to Saracens in 2012. The hugely prolific England international became so sickened of Twitter and so upset by the barrage of abuse that he now compares his feelings about the platform to a phobia.
Alun Wyn Jones got slaughtered this month for refusing to pass off Joe Marler’s groin-grab as ‘banter’, as though the boorish toying of genitals to an audience of millions should be laughed about, even lionised, as part of rugby’s hilarious LAD culture.
George North, Jones’s Wales team-mate, has 40 tries in 95 Tests but deals with trolls on a “daily basis”. “You should never play for Wales again,” said one. “Here’s your P45, I’ll sort it out,” chimed another. Danny Cipriani, unfathomably, took a pasting for his beautiful tribute to ex-partner, Caroline Flack, in the wake of her desperate passing last month.
On the tamer end of the scale, if there is such a thing, a ‘fan’ wrote: “Pete Horne, you’re stealing a living” to the Scotland centre and PRO12 champion immediately before one of the national team’s finest performances in recent memory. Few in Scottish rugby work as hard or give as much to the cause as Horne. Few get pilloried as frequently.
“I wish you never wear the shirt again.” That was a message that greeted Gordon Reid, among the most thunderously likeable characters in the game, after another Scotland Test. Some of the squad received much more noxious stuff during the ill-fated World Cup.
“Why are we wasting money on someone old and past it?” read a Tweet from a Leicester Tigers supporter on the recent signing of Nemani Nadolo. Would the author of this post have repeated it aloud to the face of the 6ft 5in, 130kg Fijian? If he had, Nadolo would have laughed and turned the other cheek because that’s the kind of bloke he is.
Nadolo has been racially abused in the past, in person. Simon Zebo has had that kind bile hurled at him too, during a Champions Cup match at Ulster. As a young woman, Rhona Lloyd, the Scotland wing, got teased for being too muscular and developed such a complex over her body image that it drove her to skip weights sessions issued by the national selectors. Ugo Monye was bladed for his television punditry on the day his wife suffered a miscarriage.
This is sordid stuff, right? This isn’t the rugby many of us recognise or the community we cherish. But this smattering – and it is only a smattering – of poison is merely a drop in the cyber-ocean. There’s a whole lot more of it out there, stinking the place out.
— Jim Hamilton (@jimhamilton4) March 24, 2020
The vast majority of the public don’t have a clue what it is like to be a professional rugby player in 2020. They don’t see the eye-watering volume of fitness, drills, set-pieces, attacking moves, defensive shapes, weightlifting, dieting, analysing, prehabbing, rehabbing, planning, meetings and all the rest of it that goes into making a career of this glorious sport.
They don’t feel the relentlessness and the ferocity of the hits, car-crash collisions that seem to grow more vicious by the season. They don’t operate in front of thousands – sometimes millions – of people on a weekly basis. They don’t live their lives under anything like the same level of scrutiny.
Of course, rugby players are on the whole paid handsomely for their toil, but that doesn’t make them fair game. There’s a pretty obvious line between performance critique and outright malevolence. A player knows when they have not played well – they don’t need 52-year-old Dave from High Wycombe issuing a bombastic reminder of how crap they were so they, their family and friends can read it.
Some can shed that nonsense as easily as taking off their coats, but on a certain level, it still stings. Others take it much, much harder. How often must it be said? Being a hulking athlete with a 180kg bench press and the body-fat percentage of Mr Olympia does not render one emotionally bulletproof.
THE @johnbarc86 COLUMN
'…many players will have played their last games for their clubs, or even of their careers, without knowing it.'https://t.co/OBx3TT4ZPq
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 21, 2020
Physically, the game has never been tougher, but mentally too, the toll is immense. Seasons nowadays stretch on longer than Saving Private Ryan and are almost as brutal. The irony is that it has taken the heinousness and tragedy of a global pandemic to give some players’ bodies a proper rest.
After Flack’s death, social media was awash with pledges to ‘be kind’. So soon afterwards, the filth has seeped in again, if indeed it ever left. People, frequently, are not kind, particularly when it comes to sport. Players have insecurities and vulnerabilities and demons like the rest of us.
Players succumb to addiction and poor mental health. Hundreds of them have spoken about it, among them some of the finest minds and toughest figures in the game – Jonny Wilkinson, Graham Henry, Eddie Jones. Many more are suffering still.
Rugby likes to trumpet its values long and loud. There’s a superiority complex here, an unedifying sneering at ‘lesser’ sports like football. “Ah, but you’d never see a referee being abused in rugby.” Except that you would.
Refereeing a different type of scrum https://t.co/e7VhWoOpNe
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 21, 2020
Ask Nigel Owens about homophobic slurs, or Bryce Lawrence about being threatened with violence. In fact, you even saw Jones, the most famous coach in the world, effectively calling an official a cheat after a recent match and shamefully escaping any serious comeuppance. This moral high ground is being eroded.
Hogg, Ashton, North and others have described the relief of withdrawing from social media. The Scotland full-back has handed over access to his accounts to his agency and feels a good deal happier and healthier for doing so.
Twitter and Instagram give us such wonderful platforms to do good, to interact with players, foster closer bonds between fans and their heroes, but if we want to keep it that way, we can’t go on like this. We have to do better. If we don’t stop the idiocy, we are going to end up with broken players, a toxic online habitat and a grossly diminished game.
WATCH: Ben Foden chats to Jim Hamilton in the latest episode of The Lockdown, the new RugbyPass series
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