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Hat-trick of cricket apologies exposes more than culture

Natalie McEvoy

Why are organisations still not spotting indicators of toxic attitudes and behaviour on legacy social media?

The running order of the BBC Five Live news last Friday was striking for its hat-trick of headlines to do with apologies for the unearthing of historical communications by sportsmen in the public eye. Alex Hales, Azeem Rafiq and Tim Paine lined up side-by-side with their contrite apologies.

Former England batter, Alex Hales, has apologised for “all the offence” he has caused after a photo showing him wearing black make-up at a 2009 New Year’s Eve party was published. Hales, now 32, was 20 at the time.

Azeem Rafiq, who earlier in the week gave evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee regarding the racist treatment he received during his time at Yorkshire Cricket Club, has apologised for using anti-Semitic language of which he is “deeply ashamed” in Facebook messages from 2011. Rafiq, now 30, was 19 at the time.

Australia Test captain Tim Paine has tearfully apologised for sexually explicit text messages he sent to a female colleague in 2017 that fell short of the standard expected of a member of the national team. Paine, now 36, was 31 at the time.

The first two stories involve publications more than a decade old and by men barely into adulthood. The latter was a private text message between adults, but was one year after he had got married. All three men are experiencing a reputational crisis point with the professional and private uncertainty that encompasses.

Aside from the obvious educational piece here, the practical overarching message is: if you wouldn’t say it in front of your employer, don’t commit it to writing. Something you imagine to be published within a small group, or indeed completely privately, may in some way, make its way into the public domain. You may know this as second nature now, but did you at 18? If you have, or are on the cusp of having, a public profile, in any context – business, sporting or entertainment, you need to put aside the time to check the historical viewpoints you may have expressed, which may now have faded from memory. The mischief of youth may otherwise come back to haunt you.

We have written before about how society has come to expect the full package; those with a celebrated public profile will not be excused their past offensive views. We expect our national sportsmen to behave properly off the sports field, as we do too of our politicians and brand- and business leaders.

Slateford regularly prepare privacy reports for individuals, trawling the internet to model the behaviour of a journalist or researcher to ascertain areas of reputational vulnerability, privacy (both of family and home) and any other conflict with their professional position. We usually find ourselves making multiple recommendations of information which should be taken down.

Devil’s advocates may claim that the public has the right to understand the whole person, but judgment can be wholesale, when even a misspent youth should be allowed a salary-earning adulthood. The written word remains preserved and attached to an individual in a way that the spoken does not. The internet is not built to accommodate maturity and forgiveness in the way that a sub-4 year offence would in time be protected as “spent” under criminal law. Immaturity and education are compelling narratives in particular when it comes to allowing a second chance many years later; where but for the internet, these comments would long have been forgotten.

Public figures are role-models and have long been held to a higher standard of behavioural expectation than the private individual, but with the advent of social media the line between public and private has become increasingly thin, bringing this issue into every workplace, particularly for its senior hires. Cleaning up decade-old interactions on the internet are just a modern-day part of getting your house in order as a professional and as a business with identifiable leaders, limiting reputational risk and investing in your public-facing future.