What can we learn from the Ollie Robinson tweet fiasco?

Ollie Robinson (Photo: Indian Express)

Whether or not you're a cricket fan, it's been difficult to escape from the controversy surrounding Ollie Robinson.

Robinson made his debut for the England Test side this week and took seven wickets in the match in addition to scoring 42 with the bat. It wasn't quite as impressive a debut as Devon Conway's for New Zealand, but all the same it was a performance that showed real promise and cricket fans should be talking about Robinson's prodigious talent. 

But we're not. And the reason for this is that, on the day Robinson made his Test debut, various media outlets published tweets he made over eight years ago of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature.

The ECB announced yesterday that Robinson has been suspended pending an investigation. This announcement has met with predictable complaints of heavy-handedness and overreaction.

However, I think that is unfair. Suspension is not a punishment. It is standard procedure to investigate claims of prejudice, and equally standard procedure to suspend personnel while such investigations are ongoing. Criticism of the ECB is, however, fully merited - just not for that reason.

I have some questions about the wider situation. The most obvious of these is this: when did the ECB first become aware of the tweets? If only in the last few days, as seems to be the case, why? If they had known about these beforehand, why was no action taken then? Either way, the ECB doesn't emerge from this with much credit intact.

Does the ECB require players to accept a search of their social media accounts? If not, why not? I find it utterly bizarre that the standards and requirements that apply to Lib Dem candidates in no-hope seats don't apply to Test cricketers. Surely every potential new England cap should have a search made of their social media posts, with any potential issues raised by that search to be discussed with the player concerned and actions (including the deletion of offending posts) sanctioned ahead of them joining the squad. 

Robinson made these tweets several years ago. He has apologised and acknowledged they were wrong. That does not excuse him, but what more could the ECB realistically expect of him in the circumstances? 

Furthermore, the ECB's statement says very little. Will its "investigation" focus only on Robinson's tweets, or will it also consider the ECB's own failures, which have allowed this situation to arise? As far as the tweets themselves are concerned, Robinson appears to have been honest, apologised and has refrained from making similarly offensive posts for the last eight years. But what about the ECB's own role in creating this fiasco? Will the ECB acknowledge its own mistakes, as Robinson has done his? 

The ECB must ensure there is a system in place that routinely checks social media accounts of players. It is doing a disservice to players by allowing decade-old tweets to come back and haunt them. How difficult is it to carry out checks and, if anything concerning is found, deal with the matter there and then? Sure, Ollie Robinson was stupid to make tweets of that nature many years ago. But in the intervening years he may well have forgotten them - I certainly don't remember everything I tweeted a decade ago. The ECB needs to grasp that, if it won't check social media accounts, the likes of the tabloid press certainly will. Regular and routine checks on social media use are surely preferable to trial by media. The ECB needs to understand the times we're living in and do more to protect their players.

The ECB will claim it is serious about tackling sexism, racism and homophobia. But what this situation actually tells us is precisely the opposite: the ECB is only interested in damage limitation. An organisation serious about prejudice would do much more thorough checks on its personnel. It would be seeking to prevent situations like this arising in the first instance. And it would also realise - even if only from the perspective of risk to reputational damage - that the media will seize on any historical indiscretion from individual players. Reacting in a belated and ham-fisted way after avoidable media revelations is not the way authentically inclusive organisations operate. 

One thing that has been concerning is the reaction from Liberal types who, while understandably finding Robinson's tweets offensive, seem to be advocating a "zero tolerance" approach. Not only is this, to my mind, inappropriate given Robinson's good behaviour in the eight years since, it also fails to appreciate that the Liberal response should allow for rehabilitation, education and reform. In Robinson's case, I can't see that allowing historical tweets to derail a promising international cricket career before it has started is proportionate - especially as there is no evidence of any recent racist, sexist or homophobic behaviours.

I'm not suggesting that the ECB - or, indeed, anyone - should tolerate sexist, racist or homophobic abuse. What I am suggesting is that sporting bodies and employers should be open to the possibility that personnel may well have made foolish social media posts in the past, and therefore they should routinely carry out checks with a view to dealing with situations as soon as possible. That is the authentic "zero tolerance" approach, as it does not find prejudice and intolerance acceptable and seeks to deal with them immediately and effectively. Turning a blind eye and then throwing the book at someone after the media have picked up on past misdemeanours isn't "zero tolerance", but an admission of failure.

Rehabilitation and education - that is precisely what the ECB, and any employer committed to challenging prejudice, should consider its responsiblity. So often we think of "rehabilitation" as either an alternative to, or a process that follows, custodial sentences. But that's too narrow an understanding; rehabilitation involves changing attitudes and educating people about the consequences of actions. If the ECB had been sufficiently clued up and conducted a search of Robinson's twitter account, it would have found the offending tweets, would have been in a position to offer him an education course and would have been able to establish whether the player is likely to repeat these behaviours. The rest of the world need never have known: the tweets would have been removed, Robinson would have been given appropriate diversity training and he almost certainly would have undertaken never to tweet such offensive statements again. If that had happened we'd now all be talking of what a great future England bowler he's going to be. 

Ultimately the real story here should be about the ECB's failures rather than Ollie Robinson. There are lessons to be learned here, and not only for the ECB. As far as facilitating inclusion and diversity is concerned, it is better to support employees in dealing with past behaviours than it is to "name and shame" them in the national press. The ECB could have done more to protect their players and show that it is serious about challenging prejudice, but it has shown itself unable to do either. 

Update, 7.6.21:

I have since discovered that Robinson was sacked by Yorkshire in 2014, not long after making the offensive tweets, following "a succession of incidents that led to the club’s coaching and support staff losing faith in him." Martyn Moxon, the club's director of cricket, said: "
There [have] been three serious acts of misconduct, I would say, and then a string of less major incidents which in themselves wouldn’t be too serious. But when they are all added together cumulatively, it just got to a point where myself and the support staff have had enough really."  The club didn't go into any detail about the nature of what were desribed as "a number of unprofessional actions", but clearly his conduct breached professional expectations.

This begs a number of questions. The first is whether the "succession of incidents" included these tweets; if so why did Yorkshire not instruct Robinson to delete them?  More importantly, as 
the ECB would have been aware of exactly what these "actions" were (or could have found out), why was not more done to carry out what are, after all, basic checks on their player? Given his historic disciplinary problems, surely the ECB should have better supported the player by working closely with him to ensure there was nothing from his past that could come back to haunt him? Does due diligence mean anything to the ECB? The last thing someone needs when they're about to turn over a new leaf is being subjected to intense media scrutiny over a situation that, if managed properly, didn't even need to become public knowledge.

It has been pointed out that Robinson's stepfather, Paul Farbrace, is a former assistant coach of the England national cricket team. The assumption is that the ECB must therefore have been aware of these tweets. I'm not convinced by that - how many parents really take much interest in what their 18 year old  son posts on twitter? - but I maintain that the ECB should have known and, if it didn't, it is because of inadequate internal procedures.

If we want to get serious about tackling intolerance then the right structures need to be put in place and the right practices adopted.