MIKE QUIRKE: In life, if not in sport, sometimes it’s best not to choose any side

Laois players Gary Walsh and Ross Munnelly lifting the trophy after the county's victory over Carlow. Pic: Sportsfile

Sometimes, that media exposure isn’t all its cracked up to be anyway and can be better off avoided, writes Mike Quirke.

THE final weekend of National Football League action provided no end of entertainment: Nine goals and 119 points scored across all four divisional finals. An average of 36.5 scores per game isn’t too shabby for what some would have us believe is an ailing game.

Who knew that pairing evenly matched teams against each other would have such positive outcomes.

It’ll be a while before we get a similar level of football in the championship this summer, but the reaction of the players and supporters, celebrating and enjoying the moment of winning something meaningful in Croke Park, calls into question why so many of those Division 3 and 4 counties are so against a tiered championship structure.

Much of their reticence seems to emanate from the lack of media exposure the lower-tier games would potentially receive from the national broadcaster and press. I

ts an understandable frustration for counties doing everything they can to promote and develop the game in their own corner. They want to give their youngsters homegrown heroes to look up to. But you do that by competing and winning, as opposed to worrying about television highlights and newspaper articles.

If nothing else, last weekend’s high-scoring, hugely entertaining divisional finals have copperfastened my view that the quicker we can develop a championship system that provides all of these teams with a realistic opportunity to compete to win, the better for everybody. The arguments against a tiered structure just don’t stack up. If it’s about the promotion of Gaelic games through media exposure, surely some deal can be reached to ease those fears and concerns.

Sometimes, that media exposure isn’t all its cracked up to be anyway and can be better off avoided.

Just ask Laois forward, Gary Walsh.

Not wanting to trivialise the seriousness of the issue at hand, but the past week has brought me back to the whole ‘Roy Keane leaving Saipan and the World Cup saga’, which consumed the nation and divided so many households.

That was a time when everybody had to pick a side. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did. You were involved.

You were either with Roy or with Mick McCarthy. Choose one and stick with him.

I appreciate that I am wholly unqualified to speak evenly briefly on this topic, but over the past weeks, and particularly since the verdict was read out in Belfast, at the conclusion of a trial which gripped a nation, I feel like the country is being forced to choose sides again, in a very different context. But it’s something I’m very uncomfortable with.

People have been forming opinions and passionately choosing their side, from what they’ve heard or read of the case, and social media has turned into the wild west — a cesspool of vitriol and contempt.

Picking sides in this context is of no benefit to anybody, and only suggests there is a winner and a loser, but in this trial nobody emerged unscathed. Everybody lost, in a way.

I’m sure, like most right-minded individuals, and particularly as a father of two boys and a girl, I found the WhatsApp messages the accused men exchanged to be particularly unsettling. But I’ve also sensed this lazily growing perception out there of ‘well, that’s how guys in a team WhatsApp group talk about women’. That it is just ‘banter’ and that it is in some ways common practice for people to talk like they did. But I found those messages to be distasteful and offensive. The details and outcome of the trial are outside my jurisdiction. I’m neither knowledgeable nor articulate enough to dissect either with any authority.

Others, though, feel differently.

I suppose it is your god given right to say stupid things at the wrong time, if you choose to do so.

However, and here’s an important distinction, because one person from a particular cohort of society gives their opinion, it does not mean that those views reflect the thoughts of everybody else in that group.

Sportsmen don’t all think or act the same.

Gary Walsh was the top scorer for Laois in the Allianz league this season and he paid a heavy price for a tweet he posted about the woman involved in the trial. He later deleted and apologised for it, but it was too late; the damage was done.

It was recklessly insensitive and was well outside the realm of what was appropriate, given the heated climate following the case.

Laois football was being called out to take action against their star forward, and the county board and their sponsor quickly responded by disassociating themselves from the sentiments of the ill-advised tweet, and ultimately from the player himself.

Walsh was dropped from the squad that defeated Carlow last weekend, in the Division 4 final, and it cost him a medal and, more importantly, it denied him the sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving something with your county in Croke Park.

A hefty price for someone who doesn’t get many of those opportunities.

Was the punishment appropriate?

From the sponsors’ point of view, they obviously felt he wouldn’t be best placed to represent their brand on live television, following the tsunami of criticism that came his way, and their way, in the aftermath. They felt they had to take a stand, and I can’t recall another instance where a situation like this has forced a county board-and-sponsor combination to distance themselves from a player in such a very public and dramatic manner. They sent a strong, clear message, that the views expressed by Walsh weren’t what they wanted to be aligned with. And that was the point.

It was a costly lesson for the forward and one that he, and every other player or county, will want to avoid. No doubt, an updated crash course on appropriate use of social media is on the cards.

I don’t know anything about the guy, but he made a stupid mistake, has apologised, and was punished for it. I’d like to think he has paid heavily enough for his ill-advised tweet and will be allowed to move on with his football, heading into the championship in peace.

Perhaps it will serve as a reminder to everybody that sometimes it is OK to just say nothing. The only sides worth picking are right and wrong. It’s tough to choose grey.

And unless you were there, you’re no more qualified than Gary Walsh to tell us what you think.

So don’t bother.


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