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Think Before You Post

2 June 2021, you are 27 years old and having been sacked by Yorkshire in 2014 for ‘unprofessional behaviour’, and subsequently failing to secure a contract at Hampshire you have just played your first day of test cricket at Lord's and taken your first test wicket. This should be a day of celebration.

You should be walking off the field at the end of the day’s play, a day on which you were arguably England’s best player, able to enjoy the fruits of a six-year journey from rock bottom to the top of your profession and looking forward to an extended run in the test team.

Instead, Ollie Robinson walked off the field at Lord’s into the middle of a media storm following the publication of his racist and sexist tweets posted nearly ten years earlier in 2012/13. Robinson immediately made what appeared to be a sincere public apology, stating that he ‘deeply regretted his actions’. Whatever your opinion of his behaviour, it says much about Robinson’s strength of character that he went on to take 7 wickets in the match and score 42 in England’s first innings. The following day the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) launched an investigation to consider whether Robinson should be sanctioned for the tweets. On 6 June he was removed from the England squad for the second test of the series and suspended from all formats of international cricket. The decision divided opinion. Many, including the Prime Minister and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, expressed sympathy for Robinson stating that tweets posted almost a decade earlier should not affect his career in 2021, especially given the nature of his apology.

Robinson’s tweets were ‘offensive and wrong…they are also a decade old and written by a teenager. The teenager is now a man and has rightly apologised. The ECB has gone over the top by suspending him and should think again.’  Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary

I disagree. Racism and sexism are abhorrent and have no place in the modern world. Young people make mistakes. It is part of growing up. What is important is that they take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them, such that they are not repeated. Robinson’s suspension was, in my humble opinion at least, correct for two reasons. Firstly, it sent a message to the world that the ECB would not tolerate prejudice and discrimination. Deterrent has an important part to play in any philosophy of punishment. Punishment has no intrinsic value, its value is extrinsic, a result of the good it can serve in helping to make the world a better place. If the consequences for Robinson deter others from acting in a similar way, then his suspension is justified. Secondly, saying sorry is cheap, true repentance is not. Repentance is the act of reviewing one’s action and feeling sincere regret or remorse. Repentance leads to change. Those who truly repent do not repeat their mistakes. Robinson’s suspension pending investigation was justified in order to ascertain whether Robinson is the same person now as he was in 2012/13. Does he still believe these things, but experience has taught him to be more media savvy and better at hiding his views? Or does he truly regret his actions and having learnt from his mistakes is, as maintained by those close to him, a different man to the one sacked by Yorkshire for unprofessionalism ten years previously?

Whatever the truth, the trials of Ollie Robinson are a powerful lesson to us all about the perils of social media. 

Despite his stand-out debut performance and whatever the outcome of the investigation which may rightly conclude that the 27-year-old man should not be punished for the sins of the boy, Robinson could well have represented his country for the last time. The next opportunity for him to play test cricket is against India in August by that point Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran will all be available for selection again, so even if Robinson is available his path back into the team could be blocked. There could be lasting ramifications for something posted on social media ten years earlier.

I completed school, my degree, two post graduate qualifications and my first year as a teacher without sending a single email or using social media! I share this, not because I am a proud Luddite, but to emphasise how the world has changed.

The advent of the Internet has been described as being as important for society as the development of the telephone or even the printing press. It has the power to change lives, to create new businesses or to bring far-flung families closer together, over the past 15 months the value of this technology has been clearer than ever.

Yet despite all that, I am glad that I grew up in the dark ages. Why? Because the mistakes that I made, and there were a good many, are now thankfully consigned to the past. Sadly, this is not the case for the current generation. Social media means that every error of judgement is permanently documented and easily accessible.

I suspect there are only a handful of people reading this who do not use social media. To tell young people not to use it until such time that they are mature enough to use it responsibly is not realistic.  For better or worse it is an inescapable part of their lives. Instead, we need to educate them, give them the skills they need to make good decisions and thereby prepare them for a world that is radically different to the one in which I grew up, a world in which the mistakes they make will no longer be simply forgotten. We used to talk about teaching young people to manage their digital footprint, but footprints can be washed away, far better to think about your social media activity as a digital tattoo, something that once posted is with you for life. It is all too easy to believe that the internet is a consequence free environment; this is far from the truth. The experiences of Ollie Robinson are a reminder to think before you post.  It is all too easy to type the thirty-three characters that constitute the most common length of tweet, but that moment can come back to haunt you a decade later.