On the 28th March 2018, Ireland and Ulster rugby stars Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were unanimously found not guilty of rape and sexual assault by a jury of eight men and three women. End of story, right? It seems not, as this case has enabled Northern Ireland to rise up and stand up for women’s rights and the rights of rape victims. The actions of these international players have sparked nationwide protest and created a wave of anger at how misogyny is apparently an embedded and (perhaps more worryingly) an accepted attitude within the sport industry.
A verdict of not guilty has been given, and whether we agree with this or not, there is little that can be done to change the decision. However, this is now a prime opportunity to open two fields of debate. Firstly, this case has highlighted the need to readdress how rape cases and victims are handled in court. Additionally, a complete overhaul and internal examination must take place into sporting organisations to prevent sexist attitudes pervading amongst players.
In rape cases it is always the victim who is burdened with proving the crime, an experience that can be humiliating, degrading and mentally damaging when played out in a court of complete strangers. In this highly publicised case, the underwear of the victim was paraded around court, doctors publicly attested to lacerations and bleeding in her vagina and the victim faced eight days of questioning and cross-examination. And still she wasn’t believed based on the fact that she didn’t cry for help and the laceration didn’t “prove” rape. Now, I’m not a lawyer and I wasn’t in the courtroom to hear the plethora of arguments presented, but whether the defendants committed the crime or not, it is clear that the justice system is guilty of the mistreatment of rape accusers. Changes are needed to make giving evidence a less harrowing experience for victims, and they must be provided with a comfortable environment in which to tell their story. Otherwise, we run the real risk of deterring victims from reporting the crime. After all, who would want to relive the worst experience of their life only to be treated just as poorly by the system that is supposed to defend them?
The second issue highlighted is the chauvinistic, misogynistic attitudes found festering in male-dominated cultures like sport. Whilst the players have been cleared of rape, the WhatsApp messages that have been released since the trial indicate that they are guilty as sin when it comes to outdated, sexist ideas. In the private group chat, the players gleefully referred to the “hysterics” they left a woman in and congratulated themselves on being “top-shaggers”. These self-proclaimed “legends” are clearly stuck in a mind-set that possessing a penis makes them all-powerful, and their ignorance of the effect this attitude has on women is worrying. Furthermore, their defence lawyer declared that these messages were “exaggerated boyish banter”. Anybody else having flashbacks to the infamous ‘Billy Bush Tape’ – after all that was just locker room talk too, right?
In the interest of full disclosure, both Jackson and Olding have since apologised for the messages and any offence caused to the woman who accused them of rape, but we have reached the point where apologies are meaningless when nothing is done to rectify the situation. Clearly there is a culture within sport that encourages this offensive attitude towards women and this must be addressed if these kind of situations are to be prevented in the future.
Recently, both Jackson and Olding have had their contracts revoked and Irish rugby is conducting an internal investigation into the attitudes of its players. However, there are still staunch supporters of the pair who are trying to convince us that these men are victims of an injustice. Take for example former Irish rugby captain Willie John McBride, who publicly stated the players had been through a “traumatic” experience and should now be allowed to return to the game. My heart bleeds. Truly it does. It bleeds for women all over the world who are essentially being told that it doesn’t matter if men degrade them or treat them like sexual objects. These players were ambassadors for rugby and they have shamed their country, their sport and their gender by their perverted attitudes and bigoted opinions.
That is why it is vital that this case is not swept under the carpet. Light must be shed on environments where these attitudes prevail, and archaic mind sets need to be re-educated if there is to be any hope of reaching equality and preventing sexual assaults in the future. Northern Ireland has started their very own #MeToo movement, and if it can do anything to wipe out sexist attitudes or reform a system that treats rape victims worse than the perpetrators, then we should all be behind them.