Ignorant fans abusing Owen Farrell fail to separate criticism from hate speech

Owen Farrell walks onto the pitch with his son after the Autumn International match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham on November 19, 2022
Owen Farrell will not play in the Six Nations after stepping away from international rugby to protect himself and his family - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

What do Simone Biles, Adam Peaty and now, Owen Farrell, have in common? These athletes have all taken time off from their international careers to address the issue of their mental health.

Unfortunately, each of their announcements has attracted allegations that they are quitters or lack mental resilience. In some cases, people have gone further, questioning the veracity of the decision. Such criticism invariably comes from talk show commentators and anonymous social media users, none of whom have ever played a second of elite competitive sport.

These world-class athletes have shown throughout their careers that they have the innate drive and mental resilience to battle their way to the top of their sports. Not only have they continually demonstrated these traits to reach the top, they have also retained them through years of international competitive sport. The willpower to do this is extraordinary and few can manage it.

To accuse them of lacking mental fortitude is either a deliberate provocation, designed to bolster the critic’s own notoriety or simple ignorance, stupidity, or mendacity, and possibly all of these. Anybody who knows Owen Farrell and his family background will know that he is ferociously, sometimes too ferociously, competitive.

I am told that Farrell’s decision goes back to the negative reaction and abuse he started to receive, and which continued, from his red card for an illegal high tackle on Wales’s Taine Basham last August. It is important to make distinctions about this incident. The responsibility for the subsequent ban was Farrell’s alone. It was his mistake and it mattered not whether his action was intentional or accidental. Criticising him for the act, and for attracting the sanction, is a matter of fair comment and Farrell himself was honest enough to admit the error and not moan about the ban.

Farrell tackle on Basham
Farrell's tackle on Basham was the subject of much criticism

It is at that point that there is a line to be drawn. Fair criticism is not the same as the personal abuse towards Farrell which emanated from some quarters, particularly the cowardly internet warriors who deliberately conflated the right to free speech with the alleged right to free hate-speech.

I am sure some will blithely claim such abuse comes with the territory of being a famous athlete. They will go on to make the fatuous comment that if such athletes are happy to take the positives of fame, they can’t complain about a few nasty comments. This is nonsense.

Athletes are entitled to a degree of decency. They can expect criticism, they get it and invariably do not react to most of it. What they should not have to bear are the personal comments, the abusive comments and comments that involve their wider circumstances. If you say they should simply not read the comments you are naive. You cannot avoid knowing about them from other people, especially if your family is also affected.

Anybody with a modicum of objectivity knows the line between hard fair comment and abuse and they know when they indulge in the latter.

When it is reduced to its basics we are talking about athletes. They do not seek election or make the laws by which we are governed. Their acts do not affect our safety, welfare or freedom. No matter how important people believe their sport to be to them, it is still just sport.

If Farrell’s mental health is so precarious, why is he still to play for his club? This comment misunderstands the nature of mental health. There are some circumstances within which individuals can cope and some that, although they appear similar, they cannot. The familiarity and support Farrell will receive at Saracens is not the same environment that he faces with England.

Owen Farrell playing Saracens
Farrell will continue to play for Saracens during his international hiatus - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

I was beginning to think that we had moved forward since Biles’s decision, that we were maturing in our attitude towards mental health; that we had become more understanding of the difficulties involved. It takes courage to admit you are having mental health issues and it is, perhaps, even more difficult when you are in the public eye.

The ongoing reaction to Farrell’s announcement will be a measure of whether we have made any real progress in this area. It will tell us whether we still listen to fools shouting banalities like ‘That’s not pressure, you should try flying with a Messerschmitt on your tail’, or we accept mental health issues as real and only wish the best for people dealing with it.

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