What will it take for GAA to suitably tackle brawl culture?

On Monday evening just past, probably after a few of them would have seen footage of a brawl below in Kerry on their Twitter feed on their way out the door, the 2018 Clare senior county hurling champions Ballyea returned to the Local Inn, where for the second consecutive night they were welcomed by a special constituency of people.

What will it take for GAA to suitably tackle brawl culture?

On the Sunday evening, it was their own neighbours and families congregated outside the village green and bar that came out to salute them. From children like my own two decked out in their black-and-amber jerseys, thinking that between this team and their sister club Clondegad in football that every October there’s a county final homecoming, just as every December there’s Santa; to men in their 60s, as Tony Kelly’s father Donal turned last weekend, who not that long ago would have settled for just one October as glorious and joyous as this.

On the Monday, the gathering in the Local Inn was a smaller, more sedate affair but no less heartwarming or life-affirming.

This time there was no bonfire at the turn of the road entering Drumquin, no Syl O’Connor from Clare FM on the stage introducing the team to the crowd, no star centre forward being charioted by his team-mates to chants that Deasy’s on fire.

Instead, it was just the team, some hard-core clubmen — and their opponents from the previous day. Just a little over 24 hours after going hip to hip, ash to ash, and for long periods, score for score with and against one another, the hurlers of Cratloe were now mixing and drinking with the team that had denied them their own jubilant homecoming.

Two years ago, it was Clonlara that visited Ballyea upon the latter’s first-ever county title win. Tony Kelly is on record as saying it was a conversation he had with John Conlon that night in the Local that triggered Ballyea’s full and successful assault on that autumn’s Munster club championship. When Clonlara won a county 10 years ago, their celebrations continued late into the week.

On Conlon’s advice and Kelly’s insistence, Ballyea ceased their celebrations on that Monday night. In acknowledging one Ballyea triumph, Conlon generously planted the seed for another.

It’s a tradition they have in Clare going back generations, just as they have in Cork hurling for some time too: The vanquished county finalists sucking it up and heading off to salute and join the celebrations of their friend, the enemy.

On any given county final Sunday, you can either win or you can lose, but can you take it like a man? In Clare and Cork, year after year, they do.

They’re certainly a lot more manful than any of the acts of thuggery and cowardice that now routinely show up on our iPhones after every GAA weekend. It’s got to the stage now where it’s just a case of where in the GAA world it’ll be:

Tyrone and Derry one week, Down the following one, now Kerry just there this past weekend. Next, could it be coming to a field near you?

Sometimes when you’ve been writing about Gaelic Games for 20-plus years you can get as wary and repetitive as Bono: How long must we sing this song? Writing about discipline — ill-discipline — violence — in the sport and the culture seems as eternal as poets and songwriters trying to find new ways to wax lyrical about love.

This was going to be another one of those songs, another one of those columns — and it is. We simply can’t ignore what’s been happening — though at the moment Croke Park seem to be. It’s just we can’t overlook what we witnessed between Ballyea and Cratloe this past Sunday and Monday either and fail to point out that’s the GAA too.

But why the duality? Why has there to be an East Kerry-Dingle to go with a Cratloe-Ballyea?

The flare-up between NBA stars Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram at the weekend prompted a lot of references within that sport to two of the darkest episodes in its history: The Punch and the Malice in the Palace.

The Punch involved the same two ball clubs as last Sunday: The LA Lakers and the Houston Rockets. Forty years ago the NBA was not unlike ice hockey in its tolerance and propensity for brawls; no one would get suspended or fined. That night the Lakers’ Kermit Washington got entangled at midcourt with Houston’s Kevin Kunnert when the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moved in to pin Kunnert’s arms. At that Houston’s Rudy Tomjanovich dashed in to break the pair up when Washington turned and threw a ferocious punch to Tomjanovich face.

Tomjanovich was sent reeling backward, striking the back of his head on the floor. He initially got back to his feet but he was hardly okay; when he reached hospital, doctors informed him that if they did not operate, he would die. The punch had not only fractured his jaw and nose but had caused spinal fluid to leak into his brain cavity.

After The Punch the NBA went from being the wild west to probably the best administered and officiated league in world sport. Washington was heavily suspended, sending his career into one long downward spiral. The league added a third referee. Bench players who previously would have dashed in to join any melee could no longer encroach onto the court; even putting a foot inside the white line merited suspension. As later NBA commissioner David Stern pointed out, basketball could no longer allow men who were so big and strong to throw punches at each other.

Contrast that to the fallout from The Punch in Kerry last week. You’ve seen the clip: A Dingle mentor laying out East Kerry player, Dara Moynihan. As far as we know, Moynihan’s life wasn’t in jeopardy last Sunday night. But is that what it’ll take to come up with meaningful deterrents instead of a token one?

Reports last night indicated that the Kerry County Board are only going to suspend the culprit for eight weeks.

The Malice at the Palace between players from the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers and even spectators — not unalike Ballyholland-Downpatrick — in 2004 led to mass suspensions, with the main culprit, Ron Artest, banned for 75 games and nine players fined an average of $1.2m (€1m) each. Five players were charged with assault, serving a year of community service. Five spectators were banned for life.

No-one appealed. The home side, the Detroit Pistons, were by a distance the least aggressive of the transgressors on the night, but over the weekend their foremost player, Chauncey Billups, recalled how in their locker room afterwards their coach Larry Brown was in tears.

We gave the game a black eye tonight, men,” he sobbed.

How many managers of those teams involved in recent GAA brawls thought in such terms? That they or their team gave the game they purport to love a black eye, and very likely their opponent, if not a broken jaw?

The answer is very few. They don’t think that they’ve given the game a black eye, in no small part because officialdom — including Croke Park — often turns a blind eye.

And so we get stuck with an eye for an eye, and more black eyes for the sport, the latest an underage melee in Cork between St Finbarr’s and Kilshannig reported elsewhere on these pages; sure when you’re likely to get off scot-free, why won’t there be more free-for-alls?

And you get stuck with journos singing the same old song — yes, I’ve written about The Punch and the GAA before.

Clearing the sideline, as some have suggested, isn’t the solution; the American football touchline is thronged with men as big as Kermit Washington and none have resorted to his antics or that of that Dingle mentor. Croke Park need to be monitoring if local committees are sanctioning properly. Get players and mentors to sign up to a spirit-of-the-game clause and for heavy suspensions to be handed out and accepted when obviously merited. To take your suspension as well as your beating, as the Cratloe players did so magnificently this past Monday.

The previous night when the Ballyea lads were celebrating with their own, Gary Brennan high-fived my seven-year-old who worships the ground he walks on. “Hey, that could be you up there [on the stage] some day!” grinned Brennan.

Andrew beamed back. It could!

Or he could be Dara Moynihan or Rudy Tomjanovich too.

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