The ‘turning a blind eye’ mentality may be fuelling violence on GAA playing fields, writes Conall Ó Fátharta
LOOKING at the joy and despair on faces on the pitch and in the stands at the end the All-Ireland Club Championship Finals in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day, told you everything about how much the GAA means to people in this country.
In many parts of Ireland, the local GAA team is the lifeblood of the community — its heart and soul. Success means everything and the fact that you know and live with these amateur stars fuels the romance.
However, in recent years, a darker edge to the games has consistently raised its head. A glance through a Google search result throws up numerous prominent incidents of racial and sectarian abuse, spitting, and assault on the field involving players, managers, and even spectators. Court cases taken by players who have been assaulted on pitches are now becoming a regular feature in newspapers.
However, the issue of violence in the GAA is not something new. News articles and comment pieces from journalists and commentators can be found going back to the mid-1990s. The issue has clearly not gone away, despite the best efforts of the GAA hierarchy.
Violence aside, the spectacle of players and spectators verbally abusing each others and referees is commonplace at most age levels at club games right across the county. Racial and homophobic abuse is also creeping in, with both current and former inter-county players speaking out about appalling incidents in recent years.
So, is this kind of behaviour something that is unique to the GAA? Is it something ingrained in the culture and fabric of the games to allow such behaviour, to not be necessarily encouraged or accepted but, be somehow tolerated as “part of the game”?
For Pat Spillane, an eight-time All-Ireland winner with Kerry and now an RTÉ pundit, the rise of the uglier, more violent side of the game is a more modern phenomenon.
The Kerry legend said that, while he is somewhat at a loss as to why it has crept more and more into the game, he felt the increasing professionalisation of what is an amateur sport had led to a “win at all costs” mentality where players will push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to win.
“It’s becoming part of the psychology of the game nowadays, this ‘win-at-all costs’ mentality. It’s an amateur game in name only now. In every other way, it’s a professional game and players are being trained and prepared to do everything they can to get that advantage.
“GAA players put their lives on hold, train ferociously, and do everything to win the All-Ireland. If that means engaging in sledging [verbal insults], off-the-ball stuff to get that psychological advantage, then that’s what they do. If you look at Declan Bogue’s book [This Is Our Year], you will see that players spoke openly of it,” he said.
According to Mr Spillane, it’s not that the GAA is any more prone to violence or verbal abuse than any other sport, but that a lack of leadership exists to come down on those responsible.
“It’s this culture of ‘what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch’. That drives me nuts. When you turn to that excuse, you are in trouble. If something is wrong, it’s wrong whether it’s sledging, racial abuse, or the more violent stuff. If it’s wrong it needs to be dealt with harshly. It’s this culture of turning a blind eye that’s wrong. The GAA need to act quicker and come down on things hard and fast,” he said.
He said often, violence involving spectators attacking opposition players or referees isjustified on dubious grounds.
“At club level you see the numbers of people on sidelines when this stuff happens and it’s wrong. A lot of time a blind eye is turned by saying ‘ah, he’s trained teams for years’ or this type of thing. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong; that’s it,” he said.
From an officiating point of view, referees are also seeing this increase in aggression and verbal abuse. Often, they are at the centre of it or at the end of it.
Secretary of the Gaelic Match Officials’ Association, Alan Nash, said discipline had deteriorated markedly within the GAA in the past 15 years.
He also pointed to incidents of violence to racial abuse and spitting as being commonplace, but that there was “no will” to sanction such offences harshly. “The comparison is simple. If you go to an U-14 club game on Saturday, you will see everyone from the players to the managers to the parents on the sideline abusing the referee and giving him dog’s abuse. The same people with the same kids will play a rugby match and you won’t hear a word.”
“It’s ingrained into the GAA that you can get away with that sort of thing. The mentality comes from parents, managers, and clubs that there is nothing wrong with it. You need to change the mind set of players, mentors, and supporters. If you abuse a referee or use foul language, you should be off. It needs to come from the ground up — from county boards up.”
Mr Nash felt the problem of violence and verbal abuse was persisting due to a disciplinary system that is flawed and in some cases not enforced at all. He said the politics of “who you know” at county board level were still rampant throughout the organisation and that this meant many offences were simply brushed off or excuses made for the offenders.
He pointed to the case of Wexford dual player Lee Chin who was subject to racial abuse last year as a case of how weak sanctions were lauded as harsh punishments. Two Duffry Rovers players were handed eight-week bans for the offence, a decision branded as “exemplary” by GAA president Liam O’Neill.
“That was seen as a great signal but it wasn’t. They got eight weeks as we were told that is the maximum for verbal abuse. However, there is also a very famous rule called bringing the association into disrepute which can carry a lifetime ban. Why wasn’t that used?
“If racially abusing a player, or any of the other things we see like assaulting a referee or inciting a brawl, it that is not bringing the association into disrepute I don’t know what is. Of course, the problem is that a lifetime ban is it’s for 96 weeks and in reality it’s cosmetic because it is not enforced at all.”
Mr Nash said the issue of racial abuse was not just among players. He pointed to a U-12 match where a senior club official accosted a player who struck his son and told him to “Fuck off, you nigger” as well as calling him a “black bastard”.
“There is an amount of this stuff going on all around the country and it is just swept under the carpet,” said Mr Nash.
For his part, Lee Chin has been on the record saying he has heard the management of an opposing team instructing his marker to racially abuse him — indicative of the “win at all costs” mentality spoken of by Pat Spillane.
Mr Nash agreed with Mr Spillane that the turning a blind eye mentality is rife in the GAA, and said the enforcing of rules needed to be done by an independent body.
“The GAA has always had this macho element of ‘it’s a man’s game’ and ‘take your punches’ but we are seeing more and more examples of people being assaulted on pitches and taking cases. The reality is it’s an amateur game and if a lad’s jaw is badly broken playing, he will be out of work for six weeks. People feel they can’t get justice within the GAA because the internal system is so flawed,” he said.
Mr Nash praised the work of the Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) but said it took too long for disputes to get there. Instead, he said a system needs to be introduced where clubs and county boards are hit where it hurts — financially.
“If a player steps out of line in terms of violence or a spectator runs on to the pitch and hits a ref, the club needs to be fined or if it’s an inter-county game, the county board. This should be like a good behaviour bond, meaning that you pay a certain amount for a first offence and if you step out of line again, you get hit on top of that again. Clubs need to police their own or face serious consequences,” he said.
This lack of will to deal with the issue has also been hinted at by players. Kiltimagh’s Darragh Sloyan, who played minor and U-21 football for Mayo, was left with a broken nose which required two operations to correct after being hit by an opposition player minutes after a game in June of last year.
The pair had exchanged words during the game which led to the opposition player being sent off.
Mr Sloyan missed 18 weeks of work due to the assault and went to court for justice. During the hearing he spoke of a “culture of silence” within the GAA on the issue of violence.
“I spoke to a county board official and I was told he got a four-week suspension for what happened during the game but that what happened after the game was, essentially, not their problem. People were unwilling to come forward and support me because there is a culture of silence in the GAA for such matters. That has to stop or these cases will keep on happening.
“I was wary about going to the gardaí but I felt I was hung out to dry and I don’t regret doing so now. Everyone in the GAA needs to realise that acts like this are assaults and should not be tolerated,” he said. The GAA has made efforts to tackle the problem of indiscipline and verbal sledging with the Respect Initiative at underage level and there have been calls for a similar initiative at adult level.
However, the feeling of people like Mr Nash is that the problem lies not with the sport themselves, but with a faulty disciplinary process which allows a nod and a wink approach to enforcing the rules.
“The only difference with rugby and soccer on this is that they come down harshly on this sort of behaviour. In the GAA, they pay lip service to it and that has to change.”
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