England cricket: Ollie Robinson and the ECB – nicely spun?

Article Experience

England cricketer Ollie Robinson should have been enjoying one of the best moments of his life after his England debut. However, he has now been suspended by the ECB after a few days which were doubtless some of the most difficult of his life, with his international cricketing future in possible jeopardy.

During Robinson’s debut match for England, historic tweets re-surfaced involving sexist and racist posts made when he was a teenager. This again underlines the importance of high profile individuals and the organisations in commercial relationships with them undertaking reputational audits and monitoring social media activity.

Whilst not excusing what was written, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that a teenage Robinson may have made some poor decisions on social media. What is surprising, however, is that the ECB apparently did not undertake a full reputational audit before signing him up. The ECB will need to determine whether Robinson was contracted to a county cricket club at the time of the tweets and, if so, they will responsible for the conduct of the investigation. If he was not then the investigation will be carried out by the Cricket Discipline Commission, an independent body.

Interestingly, the tweets have also landed the ECB in the middle of a potential PR hailstorm. How the ECB responded to the tweets was closely scrutinised, particularly given that the organisation has been working hard to take positive steps against discrimination in the sport. In March, the ECB published a new anti-discrimination code and announced the creation of an Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket. Further, the match at Lord’s during which the tweets circulated online began with England players, including Robinson, wearing anti-discrimination t-shirts. Whilst racism and sexism is inexcusable at any level, presumably not everyone shares the same views they had nearly 10 years ago and the reaction from certain sections of the public and media against the ECB’s decision to suspend Robinson has been telling.

In the employment context, suspension should not be a knee jerk reaction and should only be implemented where it is necessary to ensure an investigation can be fairly carried out, to protect other employees (in this case other team members), the player themselves or the team/ECB as a whole. Here, the suspension has come only a couple of days after the issue first arose and seemingly prior to any substantive investigation being undertaken. The decision to suspend Robinson has created mixed views across the sporting and political world. One interpretation is that this suspension is in effect a form of punishment, rather than a means to, for example, ensure that any further investigation into the matter is not hampered. If the ECB or any other body is going to impose a sanction on Robinson, this should be done following an investigation and an appropriate disciplinary procedure. The actions that have been taken to date could be seen by some as disproportionate when one considers the overall circumstances of this incident and that other sanctions may be applied in due course, and one could argue that the player has received a punishment before a fair process carried out.

Prior to the announcement of his suspension, Robinson read a prepared statement apologising for the ‘thoughtless and irresponsible’ tweets from 2012-2013, stating that he has since turned his life around. This is a form of statement which has now become fairly familiar as problematic historic social media content posted by high profile figures, be they athletes, politicians or entertainment figures, continues to be discovered many years later. The ECB were in a difficult position and clearly decided he should apologise as quickly as possible and, in some eyes, at the expense of careful consideration of the surrounding circumstances. This is a nuanced area. As news emerges that the ECB are investigating other players for historic tweets, it will be interesting to see how this matter plays out and what process is followed going forward, and whether all players are treated in a consistent manner or if distinctions can be drawn.

The incident serves as another reminder that bad choices made by high profile individuals can easily re-emerge years later and cause embarrassment, reputational damage and professional damage to both the individual and their commercial relationships.

Reputational audits of high profile professional athletes should be undertaken as standard and old content on social media accounts should be reviewed carefully as a matter of course. This can not only alert organisations entering into commercial relationships with the individual to any potential issues in advance, but also gives them an opportunity to assess the individual’s behaviour and character, identify whether they may need further training to tackle underlying issues and, indeed, whether they are a suitable representative for the organisation and for the high profile role they are being given in general. Arguably, when entering into contracts with young athletes which will likely see their public profile raised by the organisation, the organisation has a duty of care to the athlete to carry out these checks. In conjunction with this, clauses pertaining to the use of social media should be included in athlete’s contracts, and regular training given, to help regulate future posts. Such contractual provisions and training may serve to provide sponsors, regulatory bodies and teams with a form of remedy against players who breach such terms. These simple steps can help both the individual and the bodies they sign with to avoid such embarrassing and damaging incidents.

For further support or advice, please contact our Employment and Media and Reputation Management teams.

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