Owen Farrell’s step back from international rugby brings into crisp focus the difficult question: when does criticism and opinion stray into harmful harassment of top sportspeople?
Part of the answer: when it comes from social media, anonymous assassins delight in sticking darts in their famous targets from the invisibility of their troll burrows.
Regrettably, it cannot be uninvented. Don’t take part in it, we all say, take no notice. It’s not that simple when the keyboards aim at your family, your wider circumstances and your character; things outside professional sport. Even if players were to live in a social media bubble, other people passing on the news and views to those close to them pierce that thin film.
We in the media are fond of quoting the old rationale: If you make your fortune and fame through public exposure, then you have to live with the downside as well. True enough but, again, not a complete answer and certainly no solution.
Farrell, 32, will not play in next year’s Six Nations to “prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing” and there have been reports suggesting he may miss England’s tour of New Zealand next year, probably the end of his international career.
It was a shock because Farrell’s on-field demeanour is very much that of a warrior who believes in “stand and deliver” and, as the second highest points scorer in the history of international rugby (behind only Dan Carter), gave no sign he was feeling any of the pressures.
However, he was significantly targeted on social media and booed at times during the last World Cup. Most of that seemed to stem from his struggles with tackle technique. Yellow and red cards abounded and, when he was sent off in a World Cup warm-up game against Wales, the regard for Farrell seemed to turn into something else.
An independent disciplinary panel cleared him on a technicality after that tackle to the head of Wales forward Taine Basham, triggering an outcry. World Rugby appealed that decision; Farrell copped a four-match ban that included England’s opening two World Cup fixtures.
“The commentary around it seems to move from an issue around the tackle to personal attacks on the character of the man, which I think is just wrong,” his coach Steve Borthwick said.
Farrell’s father Andy, coach of Ireland, let fly at one press conference with words like “circus” and “bullshit”.
“I’d probably get his mother up here to do an interview with you and you’ll see the human side of the bullshit that’s happening,” he said. “Or maybe get his wife to write a book on it, because then you’ll probably see the impact that it’s having, not just on the professional player, but the families and the human side that goes with it.”
It’d be comforting to write here that we don’t have the same problems in New Zealand, but of course we do. Read any comments on any branch of social or digital media; the trolls appear. Remember former All Blacks captain Reuben Thorne? Some sections of the fan base cruelly labelled him “Captain Invisible”. Current skipper Sam Cane has had to endure some of the same kind of criticism.
We in the media cannot escape our role in all this – and nor does any media person with their name and/or face in public view escape the trolls. Former TV commentator Keith Quinn once told me he was on the sideline of his local club team when a voice emerged from the crowd: “Hey, Quinn, you wouldn’t know if a *** was ** you.”
The key is fair criticism. Most All Blacks, past and present, accept media comment with admirable equanimity, as long as it is fair and accurate. One of the great All Blacks captains, Wilson Whineray, told me of a player who’d complained about Herald coverage saying he’d played poorly.
“Well, you did,” Whineray said. “Yes, but why do those (expletive) have to tell everyone,” came the reply. Whineray said, after a pause: “Tell you what – why don’t you play well the next game and they’ll say that too.” So he did. And the Herald did.
These days the problem is also too much rugby, too much pressure and too many players seen as expendable items in the passing parade of modern test matches. The All Blacks have built up this winning culture which has made fans hugely conscious of the desire to win every test – an unrealistic approach that only sharpens the digital daggers of the trolls.
There is another truth underlining the Farrell saga. Players can’t have it both ways. Right now, hundreds of players are lining up in court in a vast legal action against World Rugby, essentially saying they did not protect them from head knocks and the awful complications that can follow. So players want protection but must also play their role by not applying – as much as it is in their power to do so – head-high tackles.
That said, we must also allow that mental health is now an ever-present concern. In Whineray’s day, it either didn’t have a name and/or was repressed if it bubbled to the surface. These days, all of us – media, fans, trolls, coaches and all in sport – must remember that.