Ollie Robinson fallout is another grim reminder on the use of social media

By | June 10, 2021

Ollie Robinson fallout is another grim reminder on the use of social media

It didn’t take long for what ought to have been the best day of Ollie Robinson’s cricketing career to unravel into his worst nightmare. On debut, the 27-year-old England paceman had made a cracking start to Test cricket at Lord’s, when his racist and sexist tweets of nine years previously dramatically resurfaced around lunchtime on day one of the match against New Zealand.

The irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Just a couple of hours earlier, with other members of his team, Robinson had participated in ‘Moment of Unity’ before the start of the Test, donning t-shirts in solidarity with weeding out all forms of intolerance – racist, sexist and religious – from the game. The timing of the revelation of his old tweets couldn’t have been more damaging, if there is anything such as less damaging in these circumstances. No matter what he did for the rest of the game, this was a cloud that would hang over him, potentially forever, and there would be a price to pay, no matter what.

Robinson apologised profusely at the end of the day through a statement, insisting that he was neither racist nor sexist, and otherwise seemed none the worse for wear as he finished with seven wickets for the Test and fashioned a crucial 42 in England’s first innings at a critical juncture. The England and Wales Cricket Board, sensitive to the tweets no matter how old they might have been at a time when there is a pressing necessity to not just do the right thing but to be seen to be doing the right thing, suspended the Sussex bowler from international cricket pending investigation.

The ECB’s ruling has triggered a slew of opinions across cross-sections, with even political parties in England holding diametrically opposite viewpoints. The cricket world too is torn between understanding the outbursts of a teenager and zero tolerance towards racist, sexist and religious slurs, for which there really can’t be any statute of limitations.

Over the last few days, some other social posts from England internationals have been under the microscope, including from an unnamed player who, when he was 16, made the most inappropriate comments. White-ball skipper Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler have attracted scrutiny for appearing to mock the Indian way of speaking English, and conspiracies and slights are being perceived even where none perhaps exist. This is just the beginning of the storm, which is bound to gather pace as the English summer unfolds and eventually culminates in a five-Test series against India.

The ECB is fighting fire on other fronts. Umpires John Holder and Ismail Dawood had alleged institutional racism at the ECB which, they said, had adversely impacted their careers. Some ten days back, the ECB admitted they might have fallen short of the standards they set themselves, though they offered no apology.

This comes on the heels of Azeem Rafiq filing a legal complaint against Yorkshire, where he claimed direct discrimination and harassment on the basis of race during his two stints with the county ten years apart, in 2008 and 2018. Interestingly, Robinson began his county career with Yorkshire, who let him go in 2014 after a series of ‘unprofessional actions.’

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought into sharper focus the deep divide along racial lines that exist even in the 21st century. Perhaps, it is naïve to expect racial inequity to be redressed post haste when it has existed for centuries, but unless you try, you won’t make a difference, right? Clearly, Robinson’s rants on a very public platform deserved condemnation and reprimand, but what will the investigation find when the player himself has admitted his guilt, apologised, and promised to serve his penance?

Nasser Hussain, the articulate and no-nonsense former England captain who is now a respected cricket analyst, hit the nail on the head when he told Sky Sports, “If you are going to wear T-shirts about online hate and online abuse and sexism and racism, then you can’t be doing this, it’s just not good enough, it’s just not on. But I also think we are probably a bit of a cruel society if we don’t realise that an 18-year-old does make mistakes and he has made mistakes and he’s made it horribly wrong and he’s fronted up. It does not make it right in any way. I’ve read the tweets, I’ve seen the tweets, they are horrible…”

So, is the ECB punishment commensurate with Robinson’s crime? There is no right answer to that question. Racism, sexism, and religious intolerance aren’t localised issues restricted to one small, isolated pocket of the globe. They have been allowed to fester for far too long, and those who say we are exponentially tilting the other way need their heads examined. We Indians aren’t immune to casual throwaway lines that can’t be wished away by the ‘I didn’t mean it that way’ excuse any longer. The world is rapidly changing, ground rules of what is acceptable and what is not have been clearly laid down – do they even have to be? – and it’s no longer ‘woke’ to be blissfully unaware of political correctness.

While it is fine to say that education and sensitisation rather than sanctioning and punishments are the more prudent options, every indiscretion comes with a penalty. It’s merely a matter of perception whether that penalty is befitting of a youthful misdemeanor that might be no reflection of the person Robinson might have grown into, though this episode is another grim reminder on how to use social media, no matter if you are a celebrity or just another face in the crowd.

In the wake of the Robinson incident blowing up in our faces, some cricketers have deleted old posts, among them James Anderson who, 10 years back, had made fun of fellow paceman and good friend Stuart Broad’s hairstyle by calling him a 15-year-old lesbian. Others have totally quit social media, which served as the interface between them and their vast legion of followers. Digital footprints have a way of cropping up when least expected, so deleting old posts or deactivating entire accounts don’t count for a whole lot, though not everyone who has done so is guilty of one thing or the other. All it goes to show is that people have started to realise that they must think hard before committing their innermost beliefs to public domain.

Therein lies the problem. One shouldn’t have to think about it, should they? It’s imperative for mindsets to change, for awareness to be drilled in – again, unfortunate because you would think this ought to be organic – from very early on so that kids learn from a young age that colour or caste or race or religion or appearance or sexual orientation does not define a person. That will not happen overnight, but if the Robinson drama can help expedite the process even the tiniest fraction, it will not be unwelcome. At all.

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