Bernard O’Byrne is stepping down from his role as CEO and Secretary General of Basketball Ireland with immediate effect.

The joint decision has been taken “to help the organisation move forward following a recent social media post by Mr O’Byrne from a personal account.”

Social media has many strengths. It has brought fans much closer to the experience of sport and democratised the filters through which we are fed a diet of news and information. But it is dangerous as well and the force of the mob online can be just as powerful and just as frightening as it would be in physical form.

That the Euro’s should have delivered both over the past month is a salutary lesson in how quickly things can spiral.

O’Byrne is a football fan. He was CEO of the FAI prior to taking over at Basketball Ireland and he is a regular poster on social media of his support for Liverpool FC. It has nothing to do with his job or the sport of Basketball but it is of the man and it is in that that he has been undone.

If social media had been around at the time of Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland who can tell how many people would have let a sense of injustice spill over into something more. The heightened emotion of sport at the highest level makes us all behave in ways that we would never imagine in the cold light of day.

For most, the occasional swearing in front of the kids or losing sleep over a ‘game of pitch and toss,’ will have faded in the morning with only the memory of the moment.

But when you commit that moment to the public record on social media it can and will be judged from a different perspective.

O’Byrne would be very familiar with Raheem Sterling from his days at Liverpool, and perhaps a little against him for having left. That’s what sport is like.

His comment that “Black Dives Matter” is the kind that might have flitted across the mind of a tabloid headline writer but there are checks and balances in the professional world that would have looked at those three words from different angles and ruled them out as being disrespectful to a movement that was born of deep-rooted institutional racial violence in the US and has lifted awareness of difference and the way it is used by some to push down people based on that difference.

Disrespect

That disrespect was doubtless never intended but we live in more sensitive times than ever before, not a bad thing for those who are out of the mainstream, and the way the reaction came immediately and with passion, the writing was on the wall for O’Byrne.

It was inexcusable for a person in leadership and authority to be so casual in his posting. It was not the worst thing to be said in public but in sport, where the strong emphasis has been rightly on inclusion, it was tone-deaf at best and clearly offensive to many.

In a statement issued last night Basketball Ireland chairman, Paul McDevitt, said: “I am very disappointed that Bernard is retiring under these circumstances. We know that the basketball community and beyond has felt particularly let down over the last few days and we will continue to listen to and address any concerns that are raised. Basketball Ireland takes a zero-tolerance stance on any form of discrimination, and diversity and inclusion are key pillars in our sport.”

“Bernard’s comment on social media was unacceptable. It has subsequently cast him in an unfavourable light, which is very unfortunate as over the last decade he has been a driving force within the basketball community in Ireland in addressing bullying and negative attitudes regarding gender, sexuality and race. His brief lapse in judgement does not reflect the person I know, nor Basketball Ireland as an organisation.”

In the same joint statement O’Byrne himself said “While I am hugely disappointed that this is how my decade with Basketball Ireland has ended, I understand that stepping down is in the best interests of the sport.”

“I am deeply apologetic over the hurt caused by my remark and I am fully cognisant of the struggles with discrimination that many people are having to deal with in day-to-day life. My comment was an off-the-cuff, extremely ill-judged attempt at humour based on wordplay only, that was never intended to be racially insensitive or make light of organisations that have done so much to help raise awareness of inclusion and discrimination.”

Bernard O’Byrne joined Basketball Ireland in 2011. During his tenure, he helped clear the organisation’s legacy debt of €1.2m. In the last five years playing membership has increased by 66% to over 30,000 in 227 clubs, while more than 800 schools now participate in the sport.

In 2019 he became the first Basketball Ireland representative to be elected to the FIBA Europe Board, in recognition of his stature in European basketball.

His loss to the particular and the wider sporting community will be considerable. He has never hidden away for fighting what he believed to be right, while poking at the Olympic problems under the reign of Pat Hickey, to pushing hard on the ability of indoor sport to return after the pandemic.

That he will be absent from Ireland’s hosting of the FIBA European Small Nations tournament in Dublin next month is sad from a personal perspective.

We can only wish, like him, that he never posted those three words, but also wish him well in recovering from the bruising days it brought down on him.

 

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