Players attending trial sends wrong message out, MLA tells Ulster Rugby
An Alliance MLA last night challenged Ulster Rugby to explain the attendance of three players at the rape trial.
Paula Bradshaw has also written to bosses seeking information about what, if any, guidance the organisation offered to its players as the court hearing loomed.
On Wednesday Ulster players Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Craig Gilroy were at Belfast Crown Court on the second day of the trial.
Ms Bradshaw said: "This is not about the rape case itself, it's about corporate ethics.
"We knew that the media were going to be at the court in force this week, and rightly so.
"People have public personas: they are on contracts backed by public funds, and I think that the fact that they will have been in the media will potentially send messages out to sports fans, especially the younger, more impressionable ones."
She added: "These players are public figures, whether they want to be or not, and Ulster Rugby need to have recognised the implications in terms of the public narrative if their players were at the trial."
Ireland captain Best yesterday refused to comment when asked by the media in Paris about his appearance at court. Ireland face France today in the Six Nations Championship.
"I really, really wish that the likes of Rory Best at the news conference in Paris had come out and explained why he was there at the court," the South Belfast Alliance MLA said.
And she admitted she had faced criticism for speaking out about the issue.
"I've had lot of negative feedback," she said.
"But this is the court of public opinion in some ways on Ulster Rugby, and they really should have been prepared and made sure that their members and players were briefed.
"They should have foreseen that there would be a wider interest in this case, and that there are a lot of very impressionable people watching it."
Ms Bradshaw said, as a public representative, she felt it was right to write to another publicly-funded organisation to ask what guidance was provided to its players in advance of this high profile court case.
"Ulster Rugby and its players, being publicly-funded, should really have retained a degree of neutrality around the court case. There are young, impressionable men and women out there, and Ulster Rugby should have issued guidance.
"I really do hope that they did. But we will wait and see what response I receive."
Ulster Rugby would not be drawn on whether or not the organisation had given any guidance to players or staff in advance of the trial.
"Any person attending the trial does so in a personal capacity," a statement read.
"Aside from that, we must respect the primacy and importance of the on-going trial and to do so we must ensure that we provide no information, or comment, that could either directly or indirectly impact upon it."