Owen Farrell @Getty Images
The news that Owen Farrell has decided to take some time out to focus on his own mental health should be a warning rather than a headline to anyone who loves rugby.
Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in abuse on social media, resulting in death threats and offline harassment of officials and players, paving the way for a scary new part of the sport professional which must be stopped dead in its tracks.
Rugby is not alone in this, as every professional sport has had its share of badly behaved fans.
But social media and its algorithms that amplify negative sentiment have turned up the volume on bad takes, harassment, and outright cruelty to the point where we’re increasingly seeing it spill over into the professional game.
I have been someone who has been critical of Farrell over the years – and the frustration has been mainly directed at the disciplinary processes that surround rugby, not at him personally. When he transgressed and got away with red cards, he celebrated and it made him the villain to most non-English fans.
But deep down, it must be said that he is an exceptional player. Love him or hate him, Farrell is one of the most dominant players in the sport, and his competitiveness, while sometimes going too far, is a product of the professional game where winning is everything.
But the news that he will miss the Six Nations campaign is sad. Rugby is deprived of a talent that attracts attention.
The game is worse without these talented players and I’m sure Farrell won’t be the only one taking a break in the near future.
Yet this news should be a warning – a call not only for more understanding and less abuse, but also that rugby is on the verge of losing some of its greatest players due to inability to manage the well-being of players.
I recently wrote a book, which is now on shelves, about former Springbok Derick Hougaard and his struggles with addiction, painkillers and the inability to let go after a career that never ended according to his terms.
As he researched the book, it became increasingly clear that he was not alone – and that his struggles were taking place before social media.
I’ve heard stories – anecdotal from other players – current and former – who have similar addiction issues, but more generally, how many have struggled to hang up their boots and transition into a normal 9-5 life .
I know a lot of work is done behind the scenes by MyPlayers, but this only highlights the demands placed on professional sportspeople, who often cannot handle the pressure placed on them and struggle to cope.
Social media, unfortunately, allows anonymous trolls to hurl vile insults at players – directly at them, anonymously – so much so that some players told me they were too afraid to open their phones if they thought they played a bad match.
Farrell’s situation – not of his own making – but because of poor administrative and disciplinary work on the part of rugby – made him a target.
It was inevitable that at some point it would catch up with him.
Rugby can do much more, including making players aware of the dangers of social media, helping them develop coping mechanisms and taking strong action against those who cross the line.
As we heard from referees and TMOs at the World Cup, it didn’t take long for the online abuse to turn into death threats.
The situation is not new, and rugby is not the only sport facing these challenges, and there is a larger debate about how social media in society has increased cruelty and encouraged this type of violence. abuse, but this will require larger and more targeted mechanisms. change.
Players can only control their actions on and off the field. They can only exploit their talents and sometimes have a terrible game, or get away with a ridiculous decision that helps their team.
The laws of rugby are complicated, difficult to apply and players and officials have difficulty putting everything in place. The fact that they put on an entertaining contest in 80 minutes is often due to their passion and love of the sport and despite some existing laws.
You may not like a player, or the way he plays, or even think he’s good enough to be on a team, but making the decision to abuse someone to the point that he wanting to run away and hide is more of a reflection on you than the player.
Players are human and have flaws, but if all rugby fans played ball, so to speak, and not man, we would all be better off.
Farrell won’t be the last player to need a break. But maybe we need to heed his lesson, otherwise we might lose the joy of seeing so many talented individuals on the field because the abuse just isn’t worth it.