Irish Skipper Fails to Inspire

Millions of Irish rugby fans at home and abroad are gearing up to support the boys in green today when they take on France in the Six Nations opener. My kids are dressed in Irish gear and are ready to watch the match at their Grandad’s house here in the US. My husband was delighted when he learned it would be broadcast here in the states this year. I will cheer for Ireland but the day has lost its gloss for me.

Ian Henderson and Rory Best are two Ulstermen who will both play a key role in today’s match. Earlier this week they played an important role off the pitch for their Ulster and Irish teammates in a Belfast court. Ulster players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are on trial for alleged rape and sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman at Jackson’s house in Belfast in 2016 and Henderson and Best were pictured in papers at the trial.

Rory Best is the captain of the Irish rugby team; he is a boss. He is 35 and a married dad of two young children. He represents loyalty, reliability and responsibility to the team and its legions of fans. Today he brought the weight of his experience and reputation to bear against a young woman whom his teammates boasted about as a conquest through WhatsApp messages. They don’t deny the sex: they deny that the sex was not consensual. They boasted about the night in group text message. One described the night “like a merry-go-round at a carnival”. In contrast, the woman described her reaction when the second man (Olding) entered the bedroom that night, “I looked Patrick Jackson straight in the eyes and said, ‘please no, not him as well”.

I am an American woman who lived in Ireland for ten years. Irish rugby players have stellar reputations in the sporting world and I felt no conflict about enjoying provincial and international ruby. The racism and sexism of the NFL prevents me from wholeheartedly enjoying the Patriots, but I like sports and will of course watch the Superbowl with my kids. I brought my kids to an Irish pub last year to watch Ireland take on Scotland. I sent my husband play by play text messages of the match at work. The pictures in the Irish and British news of Best attending the trial bothered me more than I expected. Maybe its because I never felt embarrassed watching cheerleaders on display for the drunken fans or raged at the screen after, yet another player was accused of domestic violence?

Regardless, the strength of my reaction surprised me but days later it hasn’t waned. I was saddened at the display of support or solidarity shown by Best. Maybe its reading the testimony of the woman about large men attacking and mocking her that night. Maybe it’s the game day metaphor evoked by Best watching his side or team while the woman, like all woman, takes on rugby giants alone. Maybe it’s just the constant loss of role models that makes us realize no matter how many traumatic and personal stories women share, men aren’t understanding. Or worse – Best has been in the spotlight and has enough professional PR advice to know better – maybe they do realize the statement it makes to women and that’s the point?

The Irish Rugby Union has stated that neither men will play for Ireland while the case is ongoing, and the Irish press will wait until the trial is over to investigate further. Schmidt and Best both hid behind the ongoing trial as a reason not to comment on Best’s attendance and whether it was sanctioned since he was in camp.   Maybe I expected that recent popular discussions around consent, power and silence might have helped men understand women’s experiences of sexual assault, harassment and violence.  The #MeToo movement has not missed Ireland. Irish artists, politics and journalist have spearheaded campaigns to address sexual harassment and gender inequality in theatre, radio and in publishing, as well as politics. The Irish government announced a historic referendum on abortion legislation this week has been scheduled for May in response to a wide-spread feminist campaign. The Irish Taoiseach publicly committed to support Irish women to receive reproductive health care in Ireland this week.

And yet even in this climate, Rory Best made the decision to publicly support his colleagues accused of rape despite not being a witness that summer night. The woman testified behind a curtain to avoid eye contact with Jackson and Olding. Best and Henderson are pictured in the paper. Of course, Jackson and Olding could be acquitted and/or innocent but that doesn’t change my feelings about Best’s presence today.

Criminal trials do not purport to determine right and wrong or innocence. They determine a specific framework for guilt  and we know they have been ineffective at convicting perpetrators of rape. The jury will decide the outcome of the criminal allegation. It is Irish society’s role to decide whether the objectification of women for sexual pleasure is right and this is the context that frames Best’s action; not the innocence or guilt of his teammates.

So, what exactly were Best and Henderson supporting in court that day? Why does the skipper feel the two Ulstermen need his public presence? Even if the men are innocent of rape, they behaved grossly to the woman and treated her like a sex object. They had all the power that night: size, reputation, home advantage, numbers, money, age and experience. They also had the omnipresent knowledge that most men who assault women never get punished. According to statistics in the US, only 6 out of 1000 cases lead to a felony conviction. (RAINN)

“The more I thought about it, rape is a game of power and control,” she testified. “They rely on your silence. The only way you take the power back is when you actually do something about it. I may be preventing it happening to someone else.”

The #MeToo media frenzy has granted women credence to speak out about sexual violence at the hands of powerful men but stories like this make me doubt its impact. When will men like Rory Best – innocent men- realize the role they play in allowing the objectification of women to thrive? It takes captains, bosses, superiors, presidents, fathers, brothers and friends to publicly disapprove of the use of women in power games or merry-go-rounds at carnivals. I, for one, hope the Irish giants of rugby show more inspiration today than their captain has this week.