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.

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

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

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week