David Flatman: Don't push it, gladiators might just decide to attack the trolls

From the Front Row: They write off someone's career, press send and nip off for a cup of tea

In the days of old, Romans, tired from a week of toil, would flood to the great arenas to watch the fiercest of men do battle for their pleasure. The excitement, the release and promise of a dramatic conclusion were enough to see them return time after time to cheer, shriek and, quite probably, to imagine themselves out there covered, just for one minute, in the dust and sweat and blood. An experience so visceral that it became instantly unreal, it remains the very definition of the sporting spectacle.

As the contest drew to a close the leader of the day would be called upon to offer a decision. Occasionally, it is written, he would go further and give either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The latter would see the weaker athlete put to sleep on the spot. The crowd would reach fever pitch. Something in them, presumably natural instinct, turned them from leisure-seekers into pack animals whose minds ceased to be their own as they were overcome by mob rule.

With foam spilling from their mouths and venom pouring through their words, they would scream for their fix; scream for he who was deemed inadequate to be punished for trying and failing. No thought for the man, just for the result. No thought for those he might leave behind for the sake of losing a fight which, by its very definition, only one man could win. No thought.

For a long time since then, football has been as close as we have come to the notion of trial-by-crowd brawling. The players are less savage but just spend a few seconds looking behind a player as he throws in the ball just yards from the opposing fans. Frankly, a simple flick of the thumb seems tame by comparison. And for such a long time this verbal intimidation was all a player had to endure. But not anymore because, with the emergence of social media, the world just got a lot smaller.

Now anyone can make contact with any public figure who happens to be on Twitter. In a contemporary version of gladiatorial heckling, the armchair pundit can tell the man on his television precisely what he thinks. Progression meets regression in a bizarre but visible contradiction. This is often positive, as humans seem to be inherently nice, but it also gives voice to the nasty types who, whether accurately informed or not, gleefully inject their acidic opinions into your life. The name for these types is, apparently, trolls. That is a new one on me, but in my view it seems a bit kind.

There are chat rooms, too, where people log on to talk shop. I must concede nerdiness here as I spend silly amounts of time chatting online with people I have never met about cars I will never own. Sad? Probably. Abusive? Of course not. But a minority see the sites as a forum to share their views in an abusive manner. They write off someone's career, assassinate the character of the men who have come up short, then press send and nip off for a cup of tea. No thought.

This often faceless abuse is detested by the players. But, for obvious reasons, the various press offices around the country do not recommend launching verbal attacks on the abusers. So instead we sit at home, read the insults and are expected to maintain silence and rise above it all. This, I must say, is tough. Especially because these voices are now so loud. Their impact is instant and world-reaching, and this is unavoidably dangerous.

Of course, lots of fans know the game well and to assume anyone not being paid to coach or play knows nothing would be ignorant. But no matter what a fan sees, there will so often be more to it than meets the eye and to ignore this would be equally remiss. Some do, naturally. These trolls form opinions, pass them on and, right or wrong, they become the general consensus through sheer visibility.

All is not lost, of course, but a game whose core value was once respect is morphing into the other game that so many rugby types like to regard as principally inferior. Without question, much of this is down to players not behaving properly (or more realistically, behaving as they ever did and paying too little attention to the cameras across the room).

And I think you will agree that, for the most part, the players do get hammered when they step out of line. But the keyboard warriors who are slowly pushing rugby players away from their supporters and in turn diluting the accessibility for which rugby has always been rightly renowned, are free to scribe one vitriolic attack after another with no fear of harm. And with no thought for the men on the receiving end.

Theatrical audiences used to respond to poor performances by pelting the actors with rotten tomatoes. I warn you, we are not far away.

Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture