Why the public’s inability to treat our heroes like humans dehumanises us all
Last week images appeared of former England international, and current Derby County manager, Wayne Rooney asleep in a chair in a hotel room with some young girls mocking him for their own entertainment.
I’ve spent much of my career acting for football players to deal with the fallout on these situations. It’s hugely embarrassing for them, distressing for their families and isn’t fun for anyone involved. There is almost always one other person that it is worse for though – the member of the public who has decided to sell their story or, in this case apparently, give it away by putting it on Snapchat.
This incident is not the first time Rooney has been embarrassed and his apology on television yesterday will have been soul destroying at the time. But, over time, it will pale into reputational insignificance in a career laden in Premier League titles for England’s all-time record goalscorer. Google “wayne rooney” in a few months time and you’ll be hard-pressed to read about this. Not so for the three girls that decided to wave their derrieres in his face.
The Sun, as they always do, tracked down the identity of the girls, interviewed their parents about their embarrassment and proceeded to name all of them alongside photographs of the girls all taken from their social media. The newspaper has gloried in turning the girls into minor celebrities by following up the story yesterday with a piece reporting that one of them has been “dumped by her fiancé”. The kind of private information that should be whispered behind closed doors has been treated by the tabloid as fair game after she and her mates considered Rooney’s privacy rights didn’t exist. The level the tabloid press will go to once you’ve “gone viral” is summed up in these lines “[her ex-fiancé] declined to comment at the couple’s home … Stunning Elise’s car was parked up outside but she was unavailable”. Somehow someone is paid to harass families like that and then write it up.
What the girls did to Rooney was cruel, but it came from an immature naivety. What the tabloids have done is re-shaped the girl’s Google searches, and their reputations, perhaps forever. Google Elise and results are dominated by articles in the Sun, the Mail and others, suggested Google searches include “only fans” and The Sun have ensured that they stay top of the Google rankings with articles entitled “Who is Elise Melvin?” so that they can retain ownership of the young girl’s reputation online and guarantee hits (and advertising revenues) from those still curious about this uncomfortable mess. She still has some control; with her Twitter and Instagram pages still visible and also a LinkedIn page which lists her as a trainee accountant. Her progress in this conservative industry will surely be impacted by the unwitting headlines she has created.
Her and her friend’s naivety is extraordinary but then humans often make extraordinary mistakes. It is so important that our young people better understand how things go viral and what the impact is when they do. We lose control of everything we post on social media. Their mistake was thinking that their Snapchat posts would remain a controllable laugh within their circles. An image of a sleeping Wayne Rooney in a room that he probably shouldn’t have been in was always going to go viral and the obvious consequences should have been clear.
I’m often asked why members of the public treat famous people in the way that Elise and her friends treated Rooney. My answer is that empathy is often lost because the public see celebrities as a character off the TV, not a real person. That was clearly the case in these photos. Seeing the girls posing with the sleeping Rooney it looked like they were posing with a famous monument or statue. If you swapped Wayne Rooney with the Taj Mahal then the pictures would have looked like someone’s holiday snaps (apart from the moony one of course).
I bang on all the time about a need for more human empathy, especially in the social media age, and this unpleasant series is an object lesson on why it is important not just for the person who deserves your empathy but also for you. When it goes wrong, it goes very very wrong.