Watching some of the scenes from recent GAA matches makes you wonder whether those who take part in such events ever consider that what they are doing is probably criminal in nature and that they might also be found personally liable in compensation to any victim, writes Jack Anderson

Ben Thornley was one of Manchester United’s class of ’92. In April 1994, as United went for the double, he played a reserve game against Blackburn Rovers. The idea was to keep him fit for the forthcoming FA Cup semi-final against Oldham. On the 65th minute, Thornley, with the ball at his feet, was hit by a flying two-footed tackle from Rovers’ Nicky Marker.

Thornley’s knee was destroyed. Though he returned to play sporadically for United between 1995 and 1998, his career tailed off after that and he never reached the heights of his 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning teammates.

His book, Tackled: The Class of 92 Star Who Never Got To Graduate (with Dan Poole), has just been published.

One interesting facet is that Marker’s tackle incensed then United manager Alex Ferguson. Ferguson instinctively knew the career-limiting consequences of the tackle. He insisted that the club support the player in a civil action against Marker and Rovers, which was eventually settled. For Ferguson, a line had been crossed. Marker had recklessly endangered the career of a fellow professional.

Watching some of the scenes from recent GAA matches makes you wonder whether those who take part in such events — off the ball and sometimes off the pitch — ever consider that what they are doing is probably criminal in nature and that they might also be found personally liable in compensation to any victim.

Criminal liability for sporting assaults is rare, but it has happened in Ireland and the myth that a criminal case cannot start unless the victim presses charges is exactly that — a myth. The gardaí or the PSNI do not have to wait.

Trends from other countries — ice hockey in Canada is an example — indicate that police, prosecutors, and judges eventually reach a tipping point where they form the view the sport’s regulator is not doing enough to prevent gratuitous violence and that it is up to law enforcement to intervene. The tipping point in Canada was the brain-shaking punch landed by Todd Bertuzzi on Steven Moore in a 2004 NHL game between Vancouver and Colorado.

Moreover, there is nothing stopping the GAA voluntarily referring matters to law enforcement. At several championship matches this year, the gardaí, put on alert by the GAA, were quick to intervene and whisk away fans who, in celebrating victory, decided to encroach onto Croke Park or other venues.

While the encroachment was generally innocent and a product of overenthusiasm, some incidents at recent club matches appear intentional and motivated by violence. Moreover, if you throw a punch and it injures another GAA player and the victim misses on work or has their family life impacted, you are vulnerable to a personal negligence claim and no club insurance will cover you. Punch another and break their jaw or teeth and the dental costs will run to thousands.

The law is, however, the last resort and only deals with the symptoms of unacceptable levels of aggression in a sport and not the causes.

In last week’s paper, fellow columnist Tommy Martin brilliantly encapsulated males’ (and it is an overwhelmingly male phenomenon) moth-like attraction to ‘the fight’. Moreover, the origins of virtually every contact sport is they provide a safety valve for society where, in a controlled, rule-bound environment, players get to engage in acts of aggression which would not otherwise be allowed beyond the touchline.

In Paul Rouse’s superb new book The Hurlers, based around the first All-Ireland hurling final in 1888, the chapter on hurling in Tipp in the 1880s cites a Canon Philip Fogarty, who noted that club games had occasionally been abandoned “lest humanity too far forget itself”.

So, what can be done to deter the ‘man box’ of violence in the GAA?

The first is the will to do something. Of course, those involved in incidents that go viral are entitled to due process under GAA disciplinary processes — and the GAA rule book is paean to an individual’s right to procedural fairness — but the focus should be on what was done on the field rather than what was later submitted on paper. Apart from reminding members that the sideline or a jersey does not protect them from criminal or negligence law, six steps could be taken:

 

Centralise discipline:

There are a range of offences in the existing GAA rulebook that either carry a minimum suspension of 48 weeks — for example, any type of assault on a referee, umpire, linesman or sideline official — or potentially carry the severest of sanctions. For instance, disruptive conduct at a game which results in the premature termination of a game. Such charges should be referred directly to the central disciplinary units of the GAA at Croke Park.

The message here is not that county boards are not trusted to deal severely with such matters locally; more that those involved in such incidents should have to explain themselves to all of us in the GAA nationally.

Vicarious liability: 

Fining clubs or pursuing individuals where a fracas has occurred hasn’t worked. It may be necessary to go after and punish the club or even the ‘outside’ coach and hold them vicariously responsible for the bad behaviour of their players.

Suspended sanctions: 

If you are going to continue pursuing individuals, make more use of suspended sentences, ie, if a player misbehaves again within a certain period, they face a lengthy sanction.

Reward good behaviour:

Each county should keep a record from referees’ reports of the clubs who have accumulated the most red and yellow cards and equally those who are the fairest in terms of having the least cards/suspensions (publish the tables regularly in local newspapers). Reward those at the top of the fair-play ladder with grants for equipment or priority with tickets for inter-county matches and make sure that the fairest clubs in each county are recognised yearly by Croke Park.

Zero tolerance for player abuse of referees and poor sideline behaviour by parents at Go Game and underage matches:

Abuse of a referee by a player should automatically result in a penalty kick/strike for the opposing team. Tie this in with Croke Park’s excellent Healthy Club initiative (which is hosting a major conference on the topic this weekend in Croke Park) because a healthy club is a disciplined club;

Bring in a straightforward sin bin, as in Ladies Gaelic Football:

10 minutes in the bin to cool off may mitigate violent incidents, rather than yellow cards, which sometimes just let the angst among players fester. The rules committee idea of a sin bin after two yellows — the ‘venial sin bin’ — is at odds with what pertains in most sports.

Finally, there is a reflex in the GAA public to blame Croke Park for all the ills of the GAA, but there is an ambivalent attitude generally in the GAA public to violence. Some pundits who call now for tougher sanctions can simultaneously reminisce fondly on belts thrown and received in their career.

Ferguson tried legally to mitigate the losses suffered by Ben Thornley and would later do the same for Ben Collett, another United trainee who received a record £4.5m payout for a career-ending tackle. Yet, Ferguson was boss when Roy Keane tackled Alf-Inge Håland in 2001.

Generally, most of us know when the line has been crossed between what is acceptable in a contact sport and reckless endangerment of another. Not every foul in a game is a crime, but the rules and ethos of a game must protect those who play it and be intolerant of those who punch.

The best description of the line we must keep comes from the greatest boxer of all, Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson fought some of the toughest, dirtiest fighters in the sport’s history and generally maintained his dignity and style in the ring. When asked why, his response was simple: I ain’t never liked violence.

Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne.


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