Owen Farrell’s decision to walk away red-flags social media abuse suffered by rugby players

For a player of the stature of Owen Farrell – a heart-on-his-sleeve leader with a voracious competitive spirit and drive – to walk away from international rugby for the sake of his mental well-being is a sobering moment for the sport.

Mental health issues are always deeply personal and the reasons for them are unique to every person. But there is little doubt that the vitriol and abuse Farrell has suffered, predominantly through social media platforms such as X, has taken its toll on the 112-cap veteran.

Farrell (32) announced an indefinite break from the Test arena this week, although at this stage he intends to continue playing club rugby at Saracens, where he is contracted.

He said he was stepping back from playing for England to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.

That suggests that it’s not only Farrell who is under strain from the pressure and abuse dished out, but also those closest to him.

Farrell has received the support of England head coach Steve Borthwick.

“Everyone at England Rugby is fully behind Owen’s decision,” Borthwick said. “Since making his debut, he has been an integral part of the England set-up for over a decade and the demands on elite athletes are extremely challenging. He is an exemplary player, captain and leader and always gives his all for his country.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby and a new era of mental health vulnerability

“It is with typical courage that Owen has made this decision to open up in this manner. Together with all of us at England Rugby, I will do everything I can to ensure that he has the support he requires going forward,” Borthwick said.

Legitimate criticism versus abuse

Farrell has had his fair share of run-ins with rugby laws, especially about his tackle technique, which has led to several bans and some understandable and deserved criticism.

That disapproval from serious commentators on the sport is generally not personal or unfair, as it centres on the actions  of the player, the outcome of those actions, and their consequences.

Measured criticism is part of the game and an occupational hazard of being a professional sportsperson. It doesn’t, however, excuse the type of vitriol he has suffered at the hands of social media trolls.

The impact of hundreds, if not thousands, of personal attacks cannot be measured, but they must wear a person down.

And it’s not only rival “fans” who have hounded Farrell on social media or in the stands; it is England fans too.

Earlier this year, at Rugby World Cup 2023, English fans booed Farrell when he was shown on the big screen during England’s RWC opener against Argentina. Farrell was not playing as he was completing a four-match ban for an illegal tackle on Wales flank Taine Basham. It was astonishing to hear so much anger directed at England’s best player over the past decade – and one of their best to date.

Around the time of the Basham incident, which wasn’t helped by the ham-fisted way a disciplinary panel dealt with the situation, forcing World Rugby to appeal the initial lenient decision, Farrell was abused mercilessly on social media.

It led to his father Andy, who is Ireland’s head coach, angrily calling the situation a “circus”.

“I’d probably get his mother up here to do an interview with you, and you’ll see the human side of the bullshit that’s happening, like, you know?” Farrell senior said at the time.

“Or maybe get his wife to write a book on it, because then you’ll probably see the impact that it’s having on, not just the professional player, but the families and the human side that goes with it.

“I don’t normally say too much because of that type of reason about my son, but what I probably would say at this moment in time is that the circus that’s gone on in and around all this is absolutely disgusting, in my opinion. Disgusting. I suppose those people that have loved their time in the sun get a few more days to keep going at that,” he said.

Policing abuse

Farrell is a divisive figure in the game for sure.

He is uncompromising, tough, and often comes across as rude when dealing with officials on the field, but he is also eloquent and considered off it.

He isn’t the first player to suffer abuse on social media, but he might be the one who’s copped the most.

When people make threats against your wife and kids, they should be held to account and punished.

Social media is hardly the place for nuanced debate. Some people believe that players are well paid and therefore somehow fair game for personal attacks over mistakes on a rugby field.

Referee Wayne Barnes was the victim of so many personal attacks during his career (not helped by criticism from coaches such as Rassie Erasmus), as were others such as former Wallaby skipper Michael Hooper, that he took time out for mental health reasons.

Barnes, who handled the RWC 2023 final between the Springboks and the All Blacks, suffered severe abuse from some Kiwi fans after New Zealand lost 12-11.

He retired after the match (it had been decided beforehand) but he had some parting words for rugby authorities.

“When people make threats against your wife and kids, they should be held to account and punished,” Barnes told the BBC.

“Threats of sexual violence, threats of saying we know where you live. It crosses that line. Social media is getting worse and it’s the sad thing about the sport at the moment. It has not been a one-off.

“I’m on social media for numerous reasons. One is to promote the charitable work I do and to also promote officiating and to explain what a difficult job it is and to humanise it,” he said.

“I make that choice, and with that choice comes the ability for people to send messages of hate and violence.”

Bok scrumhalf Cobus Reinach was the victim of abuse and threats after his performance helped South Africa to beat France in the quarterfinals of the tournament.

He was selected for the semifinal against England and, despite downplaying how the abuse affected him and his family, was it coincidence that he gave a mediocre performance and missed the final as a consequence?

Before RWC 2023, World Rugby partnered with the Signify Group, a data science and artificial intelligence company, to track online abusers with a view to prosecuting them where necessary.

The official report from that collaboration is still pending, but The Telegraph reported that 200 incidents, across seven countries, were flagged for further investigation.

This wasn’t done to deter debate, or stop legitimate criticism, but World Rugby will seek to punish abusers who make threats and “cross a line”.

Farrell has chosen to prioritise his mental state in the coming months, which is a courageous decision for a man who loves nothing more than representing his country at the highest level.

Farrell might never add to his Test cap tally because of an illness that is creeping into the game and threatening to undermine a sport already grappling with many issues.

That would be a real shame. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Page 1. Front page DM168. 02 December 2023


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