GAA duty is to protect refs and players from criticism and physical danger

Let me begin by placing my cards on the table. I am a lifelong Cork hurling supporter, but I believe the rules of hurling should forbid penalties being carried forward and struck at the goal from point-blank range.

GAA duty is to  protect refs and players  from criticism and physical danger

The art that Anthony Nash perfected, while spectacular to behold, was a serious accident waiting to happen. Former Limerick goalkeeper Joe Quaid once lost a testicle saving a penalty; we should not allow the same to happen again, or worse.

Having said that, there is an appropriate way to deal with this: change the rules. But this, according to the GAA’s own rules, is a matter for Congress and it failed to tackle it last winter. Cork is getting the blame for this but since individual counties do not have powers of veto on decisions of Congress, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Having failed to amend the rules as it should have, the GAA instead made a ham-fisted attempt to do so through the back door, which has ultimately led to it breaking its own rules.

The focus of controversy is Rule 4.16(b), which states it is a technical foul “for any of the three players defending a penalty on the goal-line to move nearer than 20m to the ball before the ball is struck”.

It seems referees were instructed that the ball is “struck” as soon as the penalty taker lifts it from the ground and defending players may advance, which is why the referee allowed Stephen O’Keeffe’s charge-down on Sunday.

Observing this through legally trained eyes, two enormous problems struck me. First, the interpretation was not published. Ignorance of the law may not be an excuse, but people cannot be expected to abide by laws that cannot be ascertained by consulting the relevant sources of law.

Neither Anthony Nash nor Stephen O’Keeffe appear to have known what the correct position was on Sunday.

However, even if notice had been given, the bigger problem was that the GAA rules consistently distinguish between “lifting” the ball and “striking” the ball. The terms are used consistently and carefully throughout the Official Guide.

For frees and penalties, Rule 2.5 stipulates “the ball may be struck with the hurley in either of two ways: a) Lift the ball with the hurley at the first attempt and strike it with the hurley; b) Strike the ball on the ground. If a player taking a free puck or penalty fails to lift the ball at the first attempt, or fails to strike it with the hurley, he must strike it on the ground without delay”.

There is a Latin maxim that courts use when interpreting legislation: “expressio unius est exclusio alterius” (to express one thing is to exclude another). In simple terms, it means if one term is used in a law, it is used for a reason, and its use excludes other things from coming within the scope of the law in question. And so it should be for “lifting” and “striking” in the rules of hurling. The two terms are used to denote different actions in the game; where one is referred to, it is not intended to include the other.

Were it otherwise, and “lift” and “strike” were taken to mean the same thing, a player who fails to “lift” the ball on the first attempt when taking a free or penalty would be permitted to lift the ball a second time, and not compelled to “strike” it on the ground without delay.

Hence my disbelief when hearing on The Sunday Game of the supposed interpretation of Rule 4.16(b). Rule 2.5 on penalties clearly distinguishes between “lifting” and “striking”, and Rule 4.16(b) stipulates it is a foul to advance from the goal-line before the ball is “struck” — not before the ball is “lifted”. It is not possible to interpret these two terms as covering the same action.

The Waterford keeper’s actions were both brave and effective, but on any fair interpretation, they were in breach of the rules.

Realising this, the GAA has now issued a second interpretation, this time stating that defenders may not advance, but the ball must be struck on or before the 20m line. This makes far more sense, apart from one rather significant point: it effectively amends the rules of the game mid-season.

The Official Guide states that a competition commenced under a set of rules shall be completed under those rules. Admittedly, it also gives Central Council the power to issue interpretations that will have force of rule until the next Congress. However, an interpretation is supposed to clarify points of doubt, and not effectively amend the rules. Arguably, the prohibition of something that has been regularly practised and allowed up to now crosses that line.

Twice in just one week, the GAA has bent its own rules to breaking point. The association has probably arrived at the right place; it has a legal duty of care to protect players from foreseeable and unreasonable risks.

The lesson to be drawn from this affair is that issues around the rules need to be addressed proactively, through the correct channels not reactively in a way that leaves players and referees exposed to uncertainty, criticism and physical danger.

Dr Conor O’Mahony is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at UCC.

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