The George Hook affair – in which he scandalously suggested that a woman might hold a degree of responsibility for being raped – touched on many things, but one overlooked aspect is a connection to a worrying trend in the world of rugby, where he made his name as a trainer and commentator. Irish society is accustomed to cover-ups and prevarication within corporate organisations, especially where there are allegations of sexual abuse. So, does the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) need to address the advent of a dangerous culture of sexism among its professionals?
Four current or former Irish rugby players are set for trial in Belfast this year for rape. The precise details are not open for discussion, but Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson (25) and Stuart Olding (24) are accused on two counts each of raping the same woman on June 28, 2016. Both deny the charges.
Former Ulster player Blane McIlroy has been charged with exposing himself to cause “alarm or distress” on the same date, and former UCD player Rory Harrison (25) has been charged with perverting the course of justice by allegedly making a false witness statement to police. He is also accused of withholding evidence.
Needless to say, anyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty, but we need to consider the autonomous issue of whether rugby has a cultural problem with sexism and alcohol abuse.
Until recently rape was considered a property crime of man against man: women. Women were not their own agents. In a different way, we still see this attitude in Bunreacht na hÉireann.
Victims were commonly accused of incitement, and even subject to punishment. In India and Pakistan, unfortunately, that is still sometimes the case. In Ireland, rape within marriage was only recognised as an offence in 1990.
Ireland, like most countries, has long had a problem with under-reporting of this heinous crime. The Rape Crisis Centre reported in 2016 that 65% of survivors using their services had not previously reported to any formal authority. The conduct of many Irish men clearly remains hugely problematic.
George Hook may not represent mainstream views on rape in the rugby community, but his success on the airwaves attests to a constituency of angry, middle-age men among them who inveigh against a rapidly changing world.
Hook courted controversy, and lost his job, for offensive comments he made on his Newstalk show regarding a case with superficial similarities to the Ulster players’ case now playing out in Britain. Hook was reacting to details of a court case involving a young woman who returned to the hotel bedroom of British Olympic swimmer Ieuan Lloyd and had consensual sex with him, whereupon, she alleges, she was “passed on” to his friend Otto Putland who, she claims, raped her.
Hook said: “Why does a girl who just meets a fella in a bar go back to a hotel room?”. “Should she be raped? Of course she shouldn’t. Isn’t she entitled to say no? Of course she is. Is the guy who came in a scumbag? Certainly. Should he go to jail? Of course. All those things”.
And then the clanger – “But is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?”.
The answer, to be clear, is that there is none. A woman always has a right to choose with whom, and when, she has sexual relations.
George Hook is a proud rugby man, whose hulking six-foot-three frame equipped him for the playing fields of Presentation Cork. He would find elusive success as a rugby coach, with Connacht and London Irish, and also the United States in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987.
But it was as a pundit on RTÉ sports television, beginning in 1997, that he really shot to prominence; copying the role Eamon Dunphy plays in soccer commentary – as a provocateur who stands up for the values of his game. Having found fame in his twilight, he embarked on a successful media career as conservative columnist for the Sunday Independent, and then as Ireland’s first ‘shock jock’ on Newstalk.
Along the way he has championed “beleaguered” motorists against girlie-men cyclists, infuriated feminists, and proclaimed himself an unashamed Blueshirt, reaching out to those who eat their dinner in the middle of the day. When TV3’s Colette Fitzpatrick suggested he was “controversial” he lost his temper, saying it was an “outrageous accusation” which was the same as calling him a “liar” and a “fake”, that it was a stereotype that he battles every single day.
George Hook may not represent mainstream views on rape in the rugby community, but his success on the airwaves attests to a constituency of angry, middle-age men among them who inveigh against a rapidly changing world. To that mindset perhaps, the scantily-clad, inebriated girl – the tart – who returns to a hotel room with a group of men should not expect to halt proceedings once she puts herself in that position.
Worryingly, the Ulstermen are not the only Irish professional rugby players to have been accused of rape this year. In March Denis Coulson (23), then playing in France for Grenoble, was detained along with two non-Irish team-mates in Bordeaux after a 21-year-old woman alleged she was drugged, taken to a hotel room and raped. He strenuously denies a charge that did not prevent the IRFU re-integrating him into the Irish game as a member of the Connacht squad. It might appear that group participation in sex is a form of currency among elite rugby players. In 2013 another incident of group sex involving two other prominent Irish rugby players, being filmed by a third, was widely reported in the media, especially the Irish Independent which lapped up the sordid details. A video went viral via social media, and soon afterwards the woman involved felt compelled to leave the country. There is no suggestion that consent was absent or withdrawn, or any sexual assault committed, but there was nonetheless a serious violation of privacy.
The players faced no public sanction, and the IRFU did not deem it necessary to investigate whether a culture of sexism operates among rugby players in Ireland. By handling it internally it was downgraded.
Respect and Responsibility
Of course casual sporting sexism, represented for example in President Donald Trump’s notorious predatory ‘locker-room’ talk about inflicting himself on uninterested women, is long-established worldwide and it might be said that, in public, the views of contemporary rugby-players tend to be models of gender maturity.
However, some cultures treat sexism more stringently. For example, recently faced with a number of incidents of misbehaviour including sexual impropriety, the New Zealand Rugby Union took decisive action, commissioning a report which found that that the most prominent issues of anti-social behaviour by players involved alcohol, sexism and a sense of entitlement.
The ‘Respect and Responsibility’ review investigated an extraordinary 36 cases of misconduct over the past four years – 33 involving individual players, two involving a team and one involving a club.
A scandal in 2016 – based on complaints by a stripper that members of the Chiefs Super Rugby team touched her inappropriately and threw beer at her during a party – had prompted the inquiry. Other incidents featured violence towards teammates and a homophobic slur that was overheard by the public. New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck led the review and derived over 100 recommendations.
In defence of the IRFU it might be said that the incident in 2013 was an isolated consensual encounter, entirely different from cases where criminal charges are merited. But the circumstances of more than one individual being involved with a single woman points to a disturbing culture of treating women as sexual objects. Though there is no evidence of this it is also possible that rugby players, drawn in Ireland largely from the Upper-Middle classes, feel some sense of entitlement.
Irish rugby players are young men, some of whom rapidly accumulate small fortunes on the back of their skill and physical prowess. This imposes a huge workload as they manipulate their bodies to operate in an intensely physical sport for the short duration of their careers. Alcohol abuse among rugby-players goes back to the amateur days, though – including at club level – it seems to have dramatically declined over the last generation, as professionalism ascended.
As sporting idols rugby-players attract predictable sexual interest. Their fame puts them in danger, and there is surely a responsibility on their employers to inculcate a culture of respect. Given recent scandals it is surely incumbent on the IRFU to address what appears a worrying trend, as the NZRU did. It appears to be the IRFU are paying insufficient attention to developments that an older generation has difficulty understanding.
George Hook has no involvement in the IRFU. In fact his outspoken comments as a pundit – including his antagonism to professionalism – used to annoy prominent players and officials. But part of his persona is that of rugby jock, what used to be known as ‘alickadoo’.
The IRFU should forensically investigate a perverse culture that seems to have grown up among some professional players, linked to group sex and perhaps the sharing of videos. Only then can it be said that George Hook speaks for no one in the game.