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RUGBYPASS+ David Flatman: The right to reply

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David Flatman: The right to reply
5 months ago

A few misty moons ago I was part of a group tasked with creating what was to be called a ‘Supporters Charter’. Its purpose was to encourage the ticket-buying rugby fans who came to our ground to be, well, better behaved. The vast majority were – and are – just lovely, but there were – and, I expect, still are – a handful who were unacceptably awful. My suggestion was to call them, tell them they’d been refunded all of their cash, and inform them that they were no longer welcome. Those in charge of the numbers didn’t fancy the refund bit, so I was shooshed up quick smart. After what felt like 37 meetings to tweak and refine said charter I quietly stopped turning up. This, I thought, was both a waste of my time and a thoroughly contemporary, convoluted, ineffective way to try to tell our customers not to be arseholes to our staff without actually telling them that at all. What emerged was, from memory, a universally mocked-then-ignored press release that asked folks to say: ‘bless you’ more gently if somebody sneezed. 

I did once call a bloke and ban him. I hadn’t received permission from the boss, neither had I asked for it, but I’d had so many complaints about this one chap that I got his mobile and rang for a chat. He was almost instantly horrible to me, too, making my job even easier. He told me he was entitled to a refund – which he was not – and I told him I’d send him a tenner in the post, which I actually did, before claiming it back on expenses. A few years later a man stopped me in town to pass pleasantries. A minute or two of rugby chat later he revealed that he was this very man. I think he expected me to feel awkward or even apologetic. Sadly, and in front of his wife, I said: ‘Ah, you’re the big man who repeatedly told a mum and her young daughter to f**k off and shut the f**k up, are you?’ I even looked at his wife and reaffirmed: ‘Yep. He did that. Many times. Once while the little girl was crying.’

In common rugby parlance, when faced by me – someone absolutely willing to stand up for himself face-to-face – his arse went and he shrank to half his original size. 

Rugby fans
The majority of rugby fans are good-humoured and respectful (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What puzzled me was why nobody around him had either told him to stop this behaviour (he abused various players every week too), or straightened him out in the gents toilets when nobody was watching. I realise now that people aren’t all activists, and that almost everyone is scared of confrontation. I am an activist to a point and I am not easily intimidated by jumped-up, middle-aged men, so it’s easy for me. But most people in these situations rely on those employed by the sports club or organisation to look after them by removing the problem. 

The player (whom I won’t name as I sent him a text asking permission and he politely said no) told a coach he was going to go and ‘give them both a smack’.

To this end, I was very interested to read that Dan Biggar had, for want of a better word, recently bitten as a Gloucester fan hurled abuse at him from his seat. This reminded me of a day at Bath when we were losing a match that we simply should not have been losing. Two of us were replaced and, as soon as we took our seats, with steam still rising from our heads, the abuse began. It was two blokes and, for whatever reason, they didn’t abuse me but did abuse my teammate for what they perceived to have been a poor performance. I turned and told them to stop and watch their mouths, but they continued. Other fans booed them and told them to shut up, yet they didn’t stop. The player (whom I won’t name as I sent him a text asking permission and he politely said no) told a coach he was going to go and ‘give them both a smack’. The coach and the player had a quick chat, the player leaped the barrier separating us from the fans and didn’t smack them, but walked purposely towards them. They both fell silent, as predicted, and he quietly invited them to come into the changing rooms after the game and share their views in what might be described as a more intimate forum. 

Suffice to say, they didn’t show up, of course, which was likely just as well.

David Flatman
David Flatman, and his team-mates had their verbal knockers when playing for Bath (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

These days the conversation have moved to internet trolling, faceless abuse, and the impact it can have on the mental health of those being abused is a constant. Perhaps the abusive sports fan is really just a troll who doesn’t have his Twitter app to hand. Perhaps we ought to look at educating those abusers and attacking the problem at source. Whatever, I believe the first action ought be for any rugby fan (let’s not even start with football) who verbally abuses a player or fellow fan to be forcibly removed and not allowed back until they’ve had a period of reflection. I don’t care what his season ticket cost and therefore what a club might lose. If we find these people, then they need to go. Stop the abuse, then begin the education. 

Personally I’m glad Dan Biggar stuck up for himself, and I hope the gobshite who shouted all those awful things at him gets hammered for it. It may be an unfashionable view, but ho-hum. 

Why shouldn’t a player react? Eric Cantona took things a bit far, I’ll grant you, but what is it about being paid to play sport that means I can’t react to someone hurling visceral abuse at me? Perhaps paying for a tickets makes some folks feel like they have a right – a level of ownership – to do what they want. But compare the £50 a punter pays to the graft and sacrifice that goes into the average week of a professional player in the week leading into a match. Fans don’t all have to be cheerleaders; they don’t need to smile and laugh every minute they spend in the ground, but they need to not insult players from a distance and expect to get away with it. Personally I’m glad Dan Biggar stuck up for himself, and I hope the gobshite who shouted all those awful things at him gets hammered for it. It may be an unfashionable view, but ho-hum. 

Dan Biggar
Dan Biggar was shown a red card against Gloucester but was objected to abuse by a fan before forcefully responding (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

One thing I do wonder about is whether players constantly arguing with and indirectly berating referees feeds into the psyche of a watching fan by indirectly giving permission for them to do the same. I’ve always thought that the manner in which professional footballers abuse the officials is at least partly responsible for the same thing happening at amateur level. The same goes for diving. Whether elite players like it or not, they are role models and their behaviours will be mimicked by children and by amateurs who want to be and play like them. Perhaps coincidentally, Biggar himself – by his own admission – can go pretty hard at referees during games, and there might be a correlation here between his behaviour and how that makes observers gauge how he himself can be treated. This is tenuous at best in this case, but the notion of permission by accepted behaviour is sufficiently real that referees this season are noticeably taking a harder line when it comes to backchat. 

If supporters are not made to behave in a manner befitting a great sport, then they need to go. And they can take their cash with them. 

Professional athletes do not have to be endlessly grateful and infinitely tolerant. If a player can’t behave himself appropriately he is removed from the field and is often suspended. The same should go for fans. Rugby is supposed to be a brutal sport which somehow often manages to lead by behavioural example. If supporters are not made to behave in a manner befitting a great sport, then they need to go. And they can take their cash with them. 

 

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