The difficulty of historical social media posts

June 10, 2021

From a purely cricketing perspective, Ollie Robinson had an excellent debut for England, taking seven wickets over two innings at an average of 14.42. However, his performance was overshadowed by the revelation that he had, many years ago, posted racist and sexist messages on Twitter. Against a backdrop in which society in general is facing up to its issues with inclusivity, Robinson’s case has become political, with the Culture Secretary and even the Prime Minister offering their views.

The ECB has suspended Robinson pending the results of an investigation and, given the publicity the case has attracted, the results of that investigation and the ECB’s next steps will no doubt be closely scrutinised. However, sport in general is no stranger to disciplining players for historical social media posts, and the ECB would be well-advised to take lessons from how the issue has been dealt with elsewhere.

In football, The FA has taken a somewhat inconsistent approach to the issue. At one end of the scale, in September 2016, then-Burnley striker Andre Gray was handed a four match ban and a fine of £25,000 for a series of historical offensive tweets, with the Regulatory Commission commenting that “the mere effluxion of time is not a mitigating factor” and noting in particular that “the messages remained published on the world wide web during the intervening period”. In other words, the Regulatory Commission did not consider the passage of time to have diminished the offence (on the contrary, it considered the public availability of the tweets in question over a significant period of time to have been an aggravating factor).

At the other end of the scale, in 2019 Leicester City midfielder Hamza Chaudhary was handed a £5,000 fine and ordered to attend an education course for historical offensive comments on social media. Unlike Gray, however, he was not given a suspension. Most recently, in April 2021, West Ham player Jarrod Bowen was given a formal warning and ordered to complete an education course for a similar offence – but he was not fined or suspended. In football, therefore, the trend appears to be towards lighter sanctions combined with education programmes. Bearing in mind the increased focus on inclusivity in society at large, this could be considered surprising.

In rugby, historical offensive social media posts by three Argentina players came to light in late-2019. The Argentinian Rugby Union reacted by suspending the players involved and stripping one of the captaincy, but lifted those suspensions and reinstated the captaincy just two days later. Ultimately, the investigation into the matter concluded with the players concerned being ordered to undertake an education programme before they could return to the side. However, the UAR’s handling of the matter, including its apparent U-turn on the players’ suspension, drew stinging criticism from many corners. Given that the players involved have not missed any international matches, one might also question the practical impact of the sanction.

The ECB must clearly tread a very fine line in handling this matter. Some (including the Prime Minister) might have a degree of sympathy for Robinson, arguing that the tweets in question are a decade old and that the nature of his apology demonstrates that he is a different person today. However, whilst his apology will likely be considered a mitigating factor, that does not undo Robinson’s misconduct and breach of the ECB’s rules. There is no place in cricket, sport, or society at large for discrimination of any sort, and the ECB must discipline Robinson appropriately. The difficulties faced by the authorities in other sports show that the ECB must act quickly, that it should be consistent, and – most importantly – that any sanction should be meaningful. Undoubtedly, Robinson’s sanction should include an educational element but, beyond that, striking the right balance will be very difficult indeed.