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

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The Independent Online

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.