In 2021 it can be hard to know what accountability looks like, since so little of it appears to exist. “Cancellation” often does wonders for the careers of the cancelled; a half-hearted celebrity apology is equal to absolution. You need only look at Boris Johnson’s approval ratings to understand that even the gravest of actions don’t seem to have many consequences.
Which is why many rejoiced at the news over the weekend that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had decided to suspend bowler Ollie Robinson from international matches pending the outcome of an investigation into racist and misogynistic tweets he posted in 2012 when aged 18 and 19. Despite an apology from Robinson, now 27, he was immediately removed following his England debut against New Zealand. The ECB’s swift intervention came as a relief to those who were appalled by Robinson’s tweets and who expected them to be dismissed as irrelevant.
It’s understandable why the ECB made the choice it did (the tweets are fairly horrifying – you can see them collated here). And for the ECB, specifically, it may have been the right one. Under a zero-tolerance approach, it’s difficult to determine when “a stupid kid making mistakes” becomes an educated adult. Leaning on the side of caution is sensible, and that Robinson was 18 makes it easier to argue he was, legally speaking, the latter.
Unsurprisingly, however, a political divide has opened following the ECB’s decision: between those who see Robinson’s suspension as justifiable and those who believe there should not be repercussions for historic comments (Boris Johnson and the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden have both criticised the board). This may simply resemble another culture war debate in which the right and left argue over what language is permissible. But the nuances of Robinson’s case raise new problems.
The temptation in cases such as Robinson’s is to make them about working out whether someone was too young to have known better. This is a focus that appears logical but, when probed, ultimately unravels. Children much younger than 18 would have known the tweets were racist and misogynistic even in 2012, before the birth of so-called “wokeness”.
Suppose Robinson had posted the tweets a few weeks before his 18th birthday. Do we then treat him as a child, despite knowing his level of maturity would have been the same? What a difference a few weeks can make: the repercussions of one’s actions can suddenly reach the point of no return, where a digital footprint can affect your life, regardless of repentance, forever.
What Robinson’s case reveals is that the new rules for how we should deal with our past lives on social media lack the required range and effectiveness. All we currently have is a binary system: either the person in question faces severe repercussions – such as a temporary or permanent suspension from employment – or faces none at all.
This is not to suggest that missing out on the chance to play international cricket is an unjust consequence of Robinson’s actions. It may be the case that he should lose out on this particular opportunity and that the investigation reveals similarly awful statements from Robinson in more recent years. But we need to state the facts: Robinson was in his teens and the consequences of one’s actions shouldn’t be automatically career-ending. This doesn’t mean there should be no consequences at all – as gal-dem’s political editor Moya Lothian-Mclean has argued, we need to avoid conflating accountability with punitive punishment.
But we have to ask what good comes from blanket punishments that are imposed regardless of context, and that do not address the wider issues at stake. Institutional, systemic problems can appear to be “solved” simply by punishing individuals, rather than dealing with the underlying factors that allow racism and misogyny to thrive. This is perhaps particularly true in the world of sport, where these issues are prominent, ongoing problems. Clubs and institutions do little to solve them by making easy examples out of players.
There is always the possibility that the tweets from 2012 reflect Robinson’s moral fibre today – that the punishment he has received will prove proportional. But the problem his case raises is that while we desperately need public figures to be held to account, we lack the mechanisms to show what truly effective accountability looks like.