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26th Feb 2020

“You’ve just kind of got to say ‘fair enough’, and move on” – James Ryan on social media abuse

Rob O'Hanrahan

“The only people that went to provincial games were your family, and your friends and maybe a stray dog or two!”

Are you someone who shouts at a television watching a game? If so, you’re definitely not alone. You’ve probably been told by someone around you that “you know they can’t hear you from the couch”. But there’s some kind of a catharsis in doing it, especially when it doesn’t affect anyone bar the eardrums of the people present in the room. You’re shouting into the abyss. It’s harmless. As has been well-documented in recent weeks, the problem is nowadays that people tend to turn to typing rather than shouting, the words and anger usually contained within the walls of a sitting room or beer garden can now be transmitted directly onto the screens of your followers or those searching the hashtag. Still, not the problem. The issue is including the handle of the player targeted. Then, the abyss doesn’t exist. Then, it’s harmful.

The game of rugby is frankly unrecognisable from the one of the early 1990s. The professional era began midway through that decade, and the subsequent rise of the provinces in Europe and the national team accordingly in the Six Nations, has seen it grow into a hugely popular sport on the island of Ireland. Speaking to SportsJOE, former Ireland and Leinster hooker Shane Byrne recalls what those early playing days were like;

“I started playing rugby at a senior level in the very early 1990s, and it was very much just us playing. The only people that went to provincial games were your family, and your friends and maybe a stray dog or two! But once momentum started to get going, when Munster started to have success at provincial level and Leinster were pushing hard then… and then in the noughties that the success started to come Ireland’s way.”

With increased attention comes, well, increased attention. As more and more column inches and airtime were given across to the oval ball, that in turn put pressure on the players that maybe wasn’t there before, as Byrne outlines;

“You became very aware very early that people know you and you kind of have a bit of a responsibility to be that, you can’t just… You’ve gotta be aware the things that you say and do in interviews, or how you behave out and about, is something that can be noted. And that came pretty early on. And obviously when rugby went professional in 1995 and on from there when it was a job, you very much had a set of standards you want to go from.”

Social media has, in a lot of ways, made sport a much more enjoyable past-time for fans. Up to the second analysis, jokes and memes have made the likes of Twitter an essential part of the game-viewing experience for a lot of spectators. It’s also provided a new type of punditry in the form of YouTube or Twitter analysis, via video, screengrab or whatever medium people fancy. Rugby is no different.

The nature of the international season is that for a few weeks a year, it tends to take front and centre in the media, and therefore that bleeds over onto the timelines and screens of the observer, ranging from casual to fanatic, from optimist to the cohort that revel in the losses of the Irish rugby team. It’s a world unrecognisable for someone like Byrne, who found out that he had been selected for the British and Irish Lions Tour of 2005 from Ceefax. Is the criticism on social media a danger for young players?

“Oh, there’s no doubt! I would love to be playing rugby now and be involved in the things that they’re achieving, excelling in the pressures that would bring and the demands in bringing your game forward. But there’s no doubt about it, I had the better time in my life playing rugby at that time. Everything you didn’t do outside of rugby as well as on wasn’t analysed to the nth degree. You (could) have your life outside of it. Outside of being, Shane Byrne per se, we’re pretty private people. We keep very much to ourselves. The life I led in my rugby career gave me the opportunity to do that. But where guys nowadays, literally they come straight from school and everything to do with social media with that and into this monster that is the whole public persona of playing professional rugby, which is massive. And it must add a lot of pressure when you’re trying to be the best you can be as a player, which they all are, it must add pressure in some shape and form. I’m sure now it is dealt with directly, I’m sure there’s sections of training, there’s time spent to talking about the dos and don’ts of social media, because… a comment made, an opinion shown, whether rightly or wrongly, whether believed or not believed, it can have a massive, massive effect. These guys are up there in this level, some of those young guys now coming into the Irish team, and setting themselves up for a massively long career, and something that is said nowadays follows you, which is hard going. There’s no doubt about it.”

Rugby is not unique in this regard. We have seen player after player in the Premier League speak about the abuse they have received, notably Paul Pogba and Raheem Sterling who have been subjected to appalling, racist abuse in their careers. Ireland’s James McClean has endured repeated sectarian abuse on social media, and in the form of stadium chants and letters posted to his home. In the GAA, just last weekend, Mayo ‘keeper Robbie Hennelly was the victim of online abuse after he was named to start in the game against Monaghan. His manager, James Horan, addressed the comments after the game;

“That says a lot about the people that were doing that,” Horan said. “He had a very good game against Meath. He has been very good for us, so I’ve no idea what that’s about and I couldn’t care less… I think anyone that puts their head above the parapet, stands up in front of people or plays in front of a crowd, is unfortunately open to comment by people.”

There is open to comment and then there is open to abuse. Critically analysing someone’s performance isn’t new to sport, some make a living from it. But tagging a player is the equivalent of shoving a newspaper headline under their nose, screaming it at them and then running away. How do they deal with it? James Ryan, who started against England on Sunday, told SportsJOE that it’s about listening to the right people;

“I wouldn’t see as much of it, we wouldn’t probably have as much access as other people might because I wouldn’t go actively reading what people are saying and stuff. Obviously you come across it, I think you’ve just got to understand that everyone’s entitled to a point of view, and whatever that is you’ve just kind of got to say “fair enough” and move on. I suppose the key messages we take on board and very much how we grow are the messages we receive from our management who ultimately see the bigger picture. Certainly from the game, they will be the voices we’ll be listening to – the coaches from the review. That will form the basis of our thinking, as opposed to what people are saying from outside.”

It’s hard to not feel like Pandora’s Box has already been opened in the interactions between fans and players on social media, that the lid will never be squeezed back onto the bubbling cauldron of hate that Twitter inevitably descends into when a team loses. All we can do is hope that people learn to discern between shouting at the TV and including an @ symbol in their tweet.

“Be kind” didn’t really last long at all, did it? Or is it “be kind unless the ball is box-kicked one too many times”?

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