Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Hit to Carter's image underlines challenge facing rugby

Dan Carter has been accused by the owner of his Racing 92 club of partying too much. Photo / Photosport
Dan Carter has been accused by the owner of his Racing 92 club of partying too much. Photo / Photosport

The adage about it taking years to build a brand and minutes to destroy it has never been more pertinent or apt than in this digital age.

If ever there was a week to showcase the power - negative and positive - of social media, this was surely it.

It was a week which highlighted that social media is one of rugby's biggest opportunities and threats rolled into one hashtag. As much as it can unite, inform and provide an insight into the lives of the best and most compelling players, it can also distort the truth in alarmingly quick time and create global sensations for all the wrong reasons.

The good was seen at the launch of New Zealand Rugby's Headfirst campaign - an online initiative to provide help for people worried about their mental health. Within hours, this noble project had, as the parlance goes, lit up social. A strong message of big, tough men saying it's okay to ask for help and feel insecure.

Hundreds of thousands of people are now aware that there is a site where they can get help and no one can be sure to what extent, but to some at least, the stigma attached to suffering mental health issues is lessened slightly.

It's the ability of social media to reach so far, so fast that has resulted in so many players embracing it. The modern player is all about personal brand, and social media has changed the rules. Maybe five years ago, it was only the hyper elite who could build a marketable and commercial brand and the foundation was always their ability. The best players were the only men in the game of interest to consumer brands, which is why Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter hogged the endorsement work.

But a new avenue has opened to those players who may not command the highest profile based on what they deliver on the field, but they produce compelling social media and boast a huge following. These days, a ready-made audience is too hard for big brands to turn down and there are players with commercial clout that perhaps exceeds their standing in the talent pecking order.

Someone such as Carter has huge commercial appeal. He has carefully enhanced his legacy by combining playing brilliance with regular, controlled peeks into his life.

Yet the system he has played so well turned on him this week and has shown its darker side. Racing's owner Jacky Lorenzetti was literally translated as saying his star signing enjoyed partying too much and an old video resurfaced of Carter drinking a beer in the changing room after winning the Top 14 championship. In the blink of an eye, social media had recast Carter as almost out of control - pinging around the world were comments about his lifestyle and images of him enjoying himself.

In the wake of his arrest for drink driving - a genuine crime - dots were randomly joined, perceptions unfairly manipulated and a bloke who had been unfailingly loyal to his country was suddenly being depicted as the wildest man in Paris.

As quickly as social media can make, it can break, and the hole Carter dug for himself by making a poor decision to drive when over the limit became much bigger all on the back of others repackaging his social media highlights reel.

The dangers of this fast-moving, deceptive, doubled-edged world are significant and rugby's administrators are conscious of its ability to adversely affect the mental health of those it impacts.

"Five years ago, we might hear of an incident about a kid that is struggling," says NZR head of professional rugby Neil Sorensen. "We'd say we will deal with that tomorrow, find out more details about the fight he was in, the state he was in, and then seek some help for him. These days are gone. Because what happens now is that the young man got himself into a fight when he had too many beers [and] there will be 400,000 people who have viewed that fight before we even find out about it. Then there is the landslide of comment that comes with the channel and it is scary. But it's not going to go away. But we have to try to turn it into our advantage and use those tools to get our messages out.

"Having young James [McGougan] or a young Beauden Barrett tweeting that he is struggling and that he is feeling better after getting some support about his negative thoughts - that can have a huge impact. But you have to attack it positively."

- NZ Herald

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