Ollie Robinson’s tweets reflect a societal problem far beyond cricket

Ollie Robinson’s tweets reflect a societal problem far beyond cricket
The lesson from Robinson’s suspension should not be to ‘think before you tweet’. It’s about not having the thoughts in the first place, writes Vithushan Ehantharajah

The dab. The floss. The mannequin challenge. Cricket has always been late to modern culture’s most popular trends.

A sport with conservative roots will always struggle to be at the vanguard of internet sensations. So, perhaps it was no surprise that it took until 2021 for an England cricketer to be stung by one of the relatively oldest plays in the social media book. Receipts.

“Receipts” is a simple, self-explanatory concept. They are, essentially, proof of past utterances pulled up when someone enters into a situation or conversation. Often screenshots of previous tweets or articles, they are, essentially, “gotchas” pertaining to hypocrisy. And on the day Ollie Robinson stepped out onto Lord’s for his maiden Test cap, wore an anti-discrimination t-shirt with the rest of his England teammates that morning, barely a year after the ECB declared it would be taking a hard-line stance on all forms of discrimination, cricket was hit with its first “This you?” moment.

The tweets that spun through the system on Wednesday from Robinson, made when he was 18 and 19 – both a teenager and an adult – were racist, sexist and downright unpleasant. A suspension pending the conclusion of an investigation has been applied, which means the bowler who impressed on debut with seven for 101 across both innings in the First Test against New Zealand, and with an accomplished match-saving 42 with the bat, has been omitted for the next match, beginning Thursday.

On Monday, Wisden.com reported another racist tweet made by a current England player when he was under 16. The ECB are also looking into that, among those from other players, though news of a statement or further action has not been declared as of yet.

Naturally, for something of this ilk, outside gazes turned onto cricket. Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, culture, media and sport, voiced his disapproval of the suspension on Twitter despite having a direct and active line to the ECB. Prime minister Boris Johnson backed Dowden’s words leading to a disingenuous journey through the mill. “Woke”, “cancel culture” all got a mention – out of context and meaning, as ever – as facts were set aside for right-wing fan fiction.

None of this was surprising, of course. Not even the actual incident itself. This was cricket’s first – ergo, most controversial – brush with receipt-keeping. Should they have vetted Robinson’s Twitter before selecting him? Not the point and, to be fair, not their job. Should they have been surprised? Well, maybe and maybe not.

There is a temptation to regard this all as a new phenomenon. But social media sleuthing has been around for a while.

The prominence of the sport and subject matter dictates when and how often this happens, which is why Robinson’s tweets resurfaced on the day of his most high-profile appearance in a sport that isn’t football. But social media sleuthing has been around for as long as the apps themselves. Incidents have been wide-ranging in their relevance, humour and consequence.

Recent high-profile examples include NBA star Kevin Durrant and a slip that suggested he uses burner accounts to defend himself. In 2017, when Durrant was a Golden State Warriors player, a fan asked him to explain why he had left the Oklahoma City Thunder. “He didn’t like the organisation or playing for Bill Donovan. His roster wasn’t that good, it was just him and Russ” came the reply, framed as another fan. Only it was tweeted from Durrant’s official account.

On these shores, old tweets from footballers are a regular source of fodder, whether it’s England and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish declaring his love for Manchester United as a kid, Michael Owen’s hatred of movies or Wayne Rooney’s early contributions. Rooney’s especially have become comic canon.

Cricket has had a taste of this lighter side. The Jofradamus phenomena emanated from fans going through Jofra Archer’s tweets and finding a steady stream of consciousness from a kid who loved the game. Similarly, a young Kagiso Rabada’s idolising of Steven Finn and every young batter’s infatuation with AB de Villiers was a reminder of the game’s wholesomeness.

But the other side the ECB are navigating is a storm that English football has ridden many times. As recently as March of this year, West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen was reprimanded for a tweet he sent out in 2012, when he was 15, that used the N-word. The Football Association warned Bowen and told him to complete an education course.

Cricket has been privy to this rougher, less forgiving end. Following the Bristol incident with Ben Stokes and Alex Hales, a video of the former mocking Katie Price’s disabled son, Harvey, and the latter’s Snapchats entered public domain. It’s worth noting that video and those screenshots had been around for some time. But it was only when both rose to infamy that those receipts were pulled up.

It is foolish to assume this will be the last of this for the ECB, and as such they are working quickly to establish a fair and proper process. In the case of Bowen, his age and not being under the governing body’s jurisdiction at the time were taken into consideration, alongside the precedent the FA had set having dealt with similar matters in the past.

Age profiles are important in this regard, because a young crop of England internationals who grew up with social media are now under the microscope. And though none of us can say in good faith that our younger years were devoid of malicious words, the difference is this generation’s utterances are in 140-character black and white.

In the meantime, as focus narrows, feeds are being scrubbed. Some cricketers have left Twitter entirely for peace of mind, and it would be unhelpful for hasty departures to be taken as outright admissions of guilt. But, again, it does speak of the internet illiteracy that they might think their slates have been wiped clean given the existence of digital archives which have cached web pages since May 1996.

This episode, and no doubt its subsequent follow-ups, should not be without empathy. We’ve all been kids of that age. We’ve all said things that make us wince when recalled. Some of us have been kids at that age who are on the other end of these words. Words that can be morally and socially debilitating.

That’s not for ignoring, too, because no doubt these tweets are a reflection of dressing room chat and an unhealthy environment around parts of the game that was allowed to fester. But this is not quite a reckoning for cricket’s problem around race or discrimination, merely a guide.

Because, as much as we know about our own youthful ignorances, we have examples around us of those who get older and choose not to learn, perhaps only to better hide their prejudices. Those attitudes remain, covertly executed to allow certain attitudes to become ingrained in our systems.

Education is a word you’ll hear a lot, and it is needed. But it must be broad, starting in schools where the United Kingdom’s history with race, gender and sexuality needs to be addressed and accurately reflected. This, right now, is manifesting itself as cricket’s problem.

To some, this might be an example of the perils of internet culture. But what the internet has done is merely offered a medium for views to be put down beyond simply aired solely in the company of like minds. As much as these receipts are for Robinson and others, they are for society, too.

These players and their tweets are the low-hanging fruit from a tree polluted by the world around it. The lesson to take is not “think before you tweet,” rather, it’s about not having these thoughts to tweet in the first place. How we get to that point will take a lot more work than simply pressing delete.

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