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Sporting Role Models and the Twitter Trial of Ben Stokes

Ben Stokes was arrested for assault prior to England's trip to Australia next month. (via Flickr)

By Harry Heath

In the early hours of Monday 28th September, England all-rounder Ben Stokes was involved in a street brawl outside a Bristol nightclub and was subsequently arrested on suspicion of assault causing actual bodily harm. Shortly after the event The Sun obtained CCTV footage from a neighbouring building and before midday a tribe of journalists, sports pundits and ex-professionals had weighed in with their views on Stokes’ behaviour and what the consequences of it should be.

The video in question begins with a man who appears to be wielding a bottle attempting to strike another man in the street. Stokes becomes involved and the fracas continues with swinging and grappling from both sides, the released footage lasts for around another fifty seconds. In that period, Stokes can be seen confronting various individuals and at one point appears to strike one man to the ground in the road.

There will no doubt be a wider context that extends well beyond what we the public have seen through a brief, high-angle recording. Stokes was released later that day and an investigation is now ongoing into his actions. The due process of the law should be allowed to run its course and the way that the incident looks to us should not impact on this process. But it doesn’t look good. Not for Ben Stokes, and not for English cricket.

Stokes must acknowledge that as his country’s star man, going out drinking until the early hours of the morning and getting into a scrap is not suitable behaviour with an Ashes series commencing next month. The finger bone that Stokes broke shall heal. The repercussions of the event may not. We should be in absolutely no doubt that this incident represents unbelievable immaturity on his part and the England management should take appropriate action. To ensure this type of event never occurs again Stokes must wake up, listen and learn.

He has no choice but to learn and this is because for some loud voices on social media and in the press, the police investigation is unnecessary and the courts have been bypassed; he has already been found guilty.

“Ben Stokes should never represent England again”. “Friday night thug”. “Ben Stokes career over”. “He’s vile”. These were just some of the reactions.

For these people, the clip on their Twitter or Facebook feed that surfaced that morning was enough to draw their conclusions and to convict Stokes. This view should not be surprising given the undeniably shocking nature of the footage, although public opinion (or at least online opinion) has been very much divided in its reaction. Those sympathetic to Stokes opined “Ben Stokes is a legend”, “What a top man”, “He deserves some defending here”. At least for now, the tweeters are still out, and Stokes’ fate remains undecided.

The polarisation of views expressed on social media presents us with a much deeper question that concerns far more than the actions of one England cricketer. This question is to what extent do we genuinely expect our national sports stars to act as role models? If our expectations are that they should abide by an elevated behavioural code then where are the lines drawn as to what is acceptable, and who draws them? We appear to be divided into those who will accept only the highest of standards, and those who accept that sportspeople’s behaviour will on occasion stray to mirroring the imperfections of wider society.

When political or corporate misdemeanours are exposed the public are most often united in condemnation. When we see misconduct or hypocrisy among politicians or those in business we are right to shout loudly; think the expenses scandal, think Phillip Green and BHS pensions, think Liam Fox or Keith Vaz. These cases each involve the breaking of social contracts and the betrayal of the public trust. But we do not view what we may call the anti-social behaviour of the establishment as morally equivalent to the actions of the likes of Ben Stokes because we understand that they are not.

In Britain, we respect greatly those who achieve excellence through their industry and talent. It is often true in elite-level sport that some of the greatest performers are the ones who compete on the very borderline between legitimate and illegitimate aggression, we accept that this line is a thin one. Considering many of the sporting heroes we have enjoyed watching over the years, we often hold an admiration for characters of this kind within sport.

Sporting icons such as Sir Ian Botham or Paul Gascoigne have reached legendary status not just because they produced exceptional moments on the pitch but also because they were true personalities off it, even if their behaviour on occasion strayed outside of what is considered that of a role model. Manchester United greats such as Eric Cantona and Roy Keane were also individuals who carried a fire within them capable of both magnificence and a rush of blood. In more recent years, we have enjoyed the spark that the likes of Anthony Joshua, Dele Alli and Connor McGregor have brought to their respective fields.

We must accept that our sporting heroes are not perfect in the same way that society is not perfect. It seems that for some, we should be able to reap the rewards of the adrenaline-fuelled nature of these characters and then be straight to pointing the finger in disgust the second they stray off course and makes mistakes outside of sport. This attitude is no doubt the product of a fickle press that build the nation’s favourite characters into cultural icons only to knock them down to a status of the pantomime villain at which they can throw mud. Ben Stokes has only himself to blame for where he finds himself and he must learn, it is in all our interests that he is allowed to do so without trial by social media.

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