Jack Anderson: Shining a light on the GAA disciplinary system

Last year, the GAA’s disciplinary system was again the source of controversy. 

Jack Anderson: Shining a light on the GAA disciplinary system

A number of decisions attracted criticism for their inconsistency or leniency and including the proposal by the Central Competitions Control Committee’s (CCCC) to ban Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann for eight weeks for diving during the All-Ireland quarter-final against Monaghan; the Central Hearings Committee’s (CHC) rescinding of the red card Mayo’s Kevin Keane received against Donegal in their All-Ireland football quarter-final; the Central Appeals Committee’s (CAC) rescinding of a red card given to Seamus Callanan which allowed him play for Tipperary in the Allianz hurling league semi-final against Waterford; and the Disputes Resolutions Authority’s (DRA) decision to quash the red card given to Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly in the All-Ireland football semi-final against Mayo.

In his annual report, the GAA’s Director-General, Páraic Duffy, strongly defended its disciplinary structures noting the majority of players accept their punishments and do not engage with the appeals process.

As Secretary of the DRA, I agree. In 2015, in my first year in that capacity, of the 25 cases that came to the DRA, only one (Diarmuid Connolly) was from an inter-county player seeking to challenge a playing suspension. The vast majority of cases related to inter-club transfer refusals. In early 2016 however, and in what might be called the “Connolly effect”, there were four DRA appeals from players at college, club and inter-county level seeking to overturn playing suspensions. All failed, most notably the appeal by Ballyboden St Enda’s Declan O’Mahony, who missed the All-Ireland Club win after being sent off in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clonmel Commercials.

The reason for these rejected appeals is the rule book “loopholes” found by the DRA Tribunal in Connolly have since been closed, which in many ways is the point of the system. That being said, and writing in a personal capacity, I think the nature of the GAA’s championships and the complexity of its disciplinary system does leave it vulnerable to appeals and unnecessary off-field dramas.

On the first point, most bookies have Kilkenny and Dublin as outright favourites in this year All-Ireland hurling and football championships. At a minimum, Kilkenny will need to win four matches to retain their title. Dublin will need six.

If a Kilkenny or Dublin player is sent off on a “straight” red card for a playing offence, the minimum ban is usually one match. This equates to 25% of the championship season for a Kilkenny player and 17% of the season for a Dublin player.

Compare those percentages with a player in the Premier League or rugby’s PRO12.

Missing 25% of the season would equate to a nine-game suspension for a Premier League player and potentially a six-game suspension in the PRO12. Nine game suspensions are very rare in the Premier League. For example, Tottenham’s Mousa Dembélé recently got a six-match suspension after an eye gouging incident with Chelsea’s Diego Costa. A six game suspension in rugby would also been seen as severe. And yet, in the GAA, the equivalent sanction (in percentage terms) is handed out regularly. It follows that it is not surprising players appeal. A personal view is more consideration should be given to on-field, “on the day” punishments. Introducing a sin bin is an obvious solution. Punishing teams for accumulated “team” fouls, as in basketball, might be another. Earlier in the year, Sean Boylan suggested the GAA should look into introducing a four-point penalty in order to punish cynical play. I am not saying any of these suggestions would work but definitely it would be preferable if the creativity and energy some show in the short term in trying to free “their” player was devoted instead to ideas which might make it easier to referee the games for the enjoyment of all players.

The greater use of technology, suggested by Donal O’Grady in this paper, might also help, as based on rugby’s TMO system. Personally, I would also give managers two chances per game to ask the TMO to review a controversial decision. This would be similar to the system used by players in tennis. To be blunt, there is an element of “put up or shut up” in this suggestion. GAA managers passionately patrolling the sideline is part of a championship day’s entertainment; the recent trend of histrionically rushing towards and abusing sideline officials for every perceived refereeing injustice is not.

As for fairness, there is an argument once the GAA’s disciplinary system is engaged, it is almost too accommodating. Counties often hope to overturn a ban by a process of procedural attrition at the various committee stages.

In contrast, most disciplinary systems in sport give an aggrieved party only one hearing and one appeal. Some will even increase the penalty if a player’s appeal is seen to have little merit. Merging the existing CAC and DRA into one standing appeals tribunal might be something for the GAA to consider in the future.

Moreover, most sports have a full time disciplinary unit or officer. This is not a criticism of the current CCCC but a full time unit with citing commissioners might be the way to go. The CCCC is the most important element of the GAA’s disciplinary process. It is the GAA’s prosecution service. If and when it gets its penalties right, the rest of the system follows smoothly.

Finally, disciplinary systems in all sports have their controversies. Initially, rugby union’s disciplinary structures badly handled the “Gypsy Boy” comments made by England prop Joe Marler towards Wales forward Samson Lee in the Six Nations.

Jockey Barry Geraghty’s recent appeal quashing a 30-day ban issued against him by the stewards at Limerick and allowing him to ride at the Punchestown festival put the spotlight on horse racing’s disciplinary structures. The better disciplinary systems deal with matters at source by empowering the referee and, if necessary, unobtrusively processing any appeals. It is hoped that the DRA and the rest of the alphabet soup of the GAA’s disciplinary mechanisms will not make the headlines this season. As ever, it the players’ exploits on the field; not lawyers’ exploitation of the rule book that really matters in sport.

Jack Anderson lectures in sports law at Queen’s University Belfast

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