How should Ulster Rugby Club have handled player rape scandal?

The fallout following a rape trial involving Ireland and Ulster players has dominated the news in Northern Ireland for some time.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were cleared of rape in March but such has been the depth of feeling surrounding the case that protests and declarations of support have overshadowed on-field performances.

WhatsApp messages read out in court were derogatory towards women to say the least, giving an insight into lad culture and a world where professional sportsmen treat women with little or no respect.

This sorry affair has brought to the fore a national conversation about sex education, sexual consent and the education of young people in general.

We are in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, which rightly underline the importance of equality and highlight inappropriate sexual behaviour, but as the judge said during the case, the trial was in a court of law, not a court of morals.

That did not stop the trial and its fallout being discussed by former players, fans and commentators alike, with protests staged in Belfast, Dublin, Derry, Cork, Galway and Limerick, with more planned.

The IRFU and Ulster Rugby had suspended Jackson and Olding after the charges were made and after the verdict issued a joint statement clarifying that they would be undertaking a thorough review.

Full page adverts have been taken out in the Belfast Telegraph calling for the players to be sacked and another in their support.

Understandably, both the IRFU and Ulster Rugby cannot react to new developments occurring every day, nor should they.

But equally, with the saga front and centre on traditional and social media, not even acknowledging the widespread concerns and reassuring fans that their investigation will take some time in the best interests of all parties is a mistake.

That silence simply allows others to speak for and against them, as we have had with the likes of former international Neil Best as well as former Lion Willie John McBride, who is also President Official Ulster Rugby Supporters Club and Calacus Managing Director David Alexander who spoke to BBC Ulster

While the investigation must be rigorous, the longer it drags on, the greater the damage to the club, the governing body and the sport of rugby.

Public relations is about more than just saying the right thing of course, and our advice to the club would be to continue the players’ suspensions until the end of the season.

Ulster Rugby’s family values would otherwise be dented and critics are already speculating that an early player recall would send a message that, as one tweet put it, “proof that 'majority' of @UlsterRugby supporters club members are supportive of the abuse of women as long as they win matches.”

Certainly the players have brought their club and the sport into disrepute at a time when Irish rugby is on a high following the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam victory.

What message does it send to fans, to young women in particular or to families if the players are rushed back? Not a good one, which may in turn have an impact on commercial partnerships and in a highly competitive marketplace, which rugby sponsors would want their branding on shirts worn by Jackson and Olding?

So what else should be done?

Ulster and the IRFU should also review their own guidelines and codes of conduct and undertake thorough and regular training with players to remind them of their responsibilities to society, their clubs and the sport of rugby.

When the verdicts came out, Olding let his lawyer read out a statement while it was a week before Jackson issued his own mea culpa for unacceptable behaviour.

Actions speak louder than words and the players need to show remorse for their behaviour.

That means not just getting on with their careers and their lives, but showing some real remorse by undertaking guidance and sharing the positive lessons that they have learnt from this experience.

And they need to go further by supporting their communities and doing good, perhaps by helping charity projects, not just handing over money or a quick photo opp.

If they were suspended until the end of the season, they would certainly have the time.

** UPDATE April 14

The IRFU and Ulster Rugby issued a statement today confirming that Olding and Jackon were to have their contracts revoked with immediate effect.

Reports had suggested that sponsors were concerned about the implications for their businesses of continued sponsorship and association with the IRFU and Club while they retained two players who have been at the heart of such controversy.

Certainly their views will have been made known to the disciplinary review, but the issue goes deeper than that.

To continue to attract young people and families, and to promote values of 'Respect, Inclusivity and Integrity', they have decide to take a hard line and who could blame them?

It's heartening to read in the statement that they plan "to conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes, within the game in Ireland, to ensure the importance of these core values is clearly understood, supported and practised at every level of the game."

After the public relations crisis and negative headlines, they had no choice.