JACK ANDERSON: Playing Gaelic games must not be used as licence for thuggery

As the GAA inter-county season ends and its club championships reach their final stages, it’s time to reflect on some of the key challenges that lie ahead for the GAA.

Five issues come to mind, and they will be addressed over the coming weeks.

The first is the seemingly perennial problem of ill-discipline and violence at club level in the GAA and what to do about it.

The second is with the current, perceived ill-health of Gaelic football, both as an enjoyable game to play and as a spectacle for supporters.

The third challenge is the sustainability of the current model of inter-county GAA given the findings in this week’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report that inter-county players are committing as much as four and a half hours, seven days a week to their inter-county ‘career’.

The fourth issue is being raised by the Club Players Association and concerns lack of regular fixtures and dropout rates in the GAA.

The fifth issue relates to Dublin’s current dominance of senior inter-county football and how to ensure — if that is indeed is what is wanted by the GAA — some element of competitive balance in elite Gaelic football while at the same time maintaining a strong GAA presence at all levels of the Association in the city. In short, in the decades ahead, does the GAA cap, or capitalise on, the growth of our capital city?

Returning to the first point, the issue of violence in the GAA has come to the fore again because of two incidents at the weekend in Tyrone.

The first involved injuries sustained by Seán Cavanagh when playing for his club, Moy, against Edendork in the senior championship.

The second occurred last Friday, with video emerging of a brawl at the end of the intermediate football championship clash between Strabane and Stewartstown, which then went to extra-time.

Tyrone County Board has since promised to investigate both matters with priority on receiving the referee’s report.

Every player and all four clubs involved are entitled to due process. For example, it has been suggested that the contact which resulted in Sean Cavanagh’s injuries was accidental. Moreover, while the video from the Strabane and Stewartstown game looks bad, the argument will be whether it sufficiently identifies individuals.

The use of video clips in sports disciplinary hearings and even in criminal cases can be problematical as they often lack context.

A video or CCTV clip might not show the build-up to the incident, which in turn might help explain whether the accused had been provoked or was acting in self-defence.

A prime example of the skewed nature of such evidence occurred recently with the prosecution of England cricketer Ben Stokes for affray. Stokes was accused of knocking unconscious two men in a brawl outside a nightclub in Bristol.

Initial CCTV clips released on social media appeared to show Stokes belting his co-accused with the suggestion being that there was a homophobic element to his aggression.

Last month, Stokes was found not guilty with the suggestion being that he had been acting in defence of others slurred by homophobia.

Returning to the GAA’s rules, they rightly say that the primary piece of evidence against a player in a disciplinary hearing is the referee’s report and that only compelling evidence, such as an unedited video, can overturn the report.

In most sports, this exception to the referee’s report is limited to the video evidence being used in cases of mistaken identity. In GAA hearings, the video evidence is now often used to second guess the referee suggesting that the player in question may not have made contact with the opponent, may only have attempted to strike or that the referee could not have seen the punch and was acting on the ‘hearsay’ evidence of a linesman etc and all the other technicalities and loopholes which the GAA’s byzantine rulebook seems to accommodate.

In short, even though you would think that as most of us who attend GAA matches now have smartphones and given that most serious club matches are videoed, this panopticon would deter player violence. The problem for the much, and often wrongly, put-upon GAA disciplinary system is the opposite; the greater volume of video evidence is being used to cast doubt on the referee’s authority.

The above notwithstanding, a rule or county bye-law mandating that clubs be permitted to video championship games for training purposes only if they agree to give an unedited copy to the county board, might be one worth considering.

As for individual counties, the predictable GAA reaction when focus is on a county’s club games is to engage in a bout of ‘whataboutery’. Why pick on Tyrone, as Peter Canavan and others have said this week?

When it’s pointed out that violence in the GAA is not confined to the senior ranks (such as the Tyrone v Armagh U20 brawl in June or last week’s report that a referee was surrounded by an angry group of supporters after the Donegal U14 Division 3 county final) the retort is why pick on Ulster? Why pick on Gaelic football. What about…?

When the remarks in April of Judge Catherine Staines in an assault case arising out of a mass brawl at an U16 hurling match in Laois are raised, the response is: What about the thousands of games that are played without incident during the year or what about sports other than the GAA etc? The whataboutery argument is wearing thin and the focus should be on the what can be done.

Three immediate suggestions come to mind.

First, strengthen the sanctions in the GAA rule book regarding substitutes and spectators who enter the field of play and join in brawls. Some of the most cowardly punches I have seen on a sports field have been thrown by subs or supporters who run onto the field of play and strike a distracted, opposing player or even the referee from behind.

Second, where a player or club is charged with an offence of a serious nature — for example those entailing interference with a referee or official; counties should be able to refer these matters centrally to Croke Park’s disciplinary committees. Those who abuse referees should be given due notice that their actions are taken seriously by the Association as a whole.

Third, in many counties there are certain clubs who feel that they have been given a bad name and are prejudiced by referees and county boards on this account. Equally, county boards are reluctant to implement bans against clubs as a whole, rather than individuals therein.

A simple way of avoiding this is for every county to establish a fair play system, based on collated yellow and red cards and other disciplinary referrals. This would bring transparency to GAA disciplinary systems in every country. Clubs who score well in this fair play system could be rewarded with grants for playing gear and equipment and centrally the GAA could host a fair play day for the successful clubs in each county. Clubs who breach a certain tally of offences in the fair play table could be subject to sanctions given their sustained pattern of misbehaviour.

While such a system seems a bit schoolmarmish or even paternalistic, recent events suggest it is needed.

Remember, if people are missing work because of injuries suffered in a GAA match at the weekend, civil suits against the GAA will follow, and insurance premiums will rise.

In addition, sometimes we in the GAA are quite smug about our sports and we have all heard comments contrasting GAA players to Premier League players rolling about feigning injury. Some of the videos we have seen recently suggest we have nothing to be superior about.

The GAA is not a licence for thuggery. The clear majority of us who love it, in all parts of Ireland, know and respect that. A minority however need to be reminded forcefully and directly that there is nothing smug in being a GAA thug.

- Jack Anderson, Professor of Sports Law, University of Melbourne

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