Over the past couple of summers, GAA patrons have become accustomed to seeing the banners at half-time during championship games promoting the GAA’s respect initiative.
This initiative is aimed at young players plus individuals involved with underage games. Concerns were raised at the deteriorating standards of behaviour at underage games and the respect initiative was seen as an appropriate response to addressing the problem.
Many individuals are involved in supporting the initiative, particularly the coaching and development personnel employed around the country. Their input has been invaluable.
It is difficult to assess how successful the initiative has been, but from my observations, I am happy that it has sent a strong message to everyone involved with underage games. That message is clear — if you want to get respect, then you must give respect.
The focus of the GAA respect initiative may have been with young players and their mentors, but now a similar initiative is required at adult level.
Indiscipline on the playing fields is a bit like the Irish weather. One weekend it may be a problem in the West or the North, another time it is a problem in the East or the South.
We can go for weeks without any significant incident and then, unexpectedly, all hell can break loose for no apparent reason.
On-field ill-discipline, relative to the overall number of games played, is not a major problem for the GAA, but regrettably some very serious incidents have occurred, which brought little credit to the participating teams or individual players.
An intrinsic part of the GAA DNA is the great rivalry between teams and players. For the most part it is healthy and respectful. But, as we have seen on occasions, it can sometimes create a hostile atmosphere with serious consequences between players and supporters.
The GAA has a long-established disciplinary process for handling ill-discipline. The process is, in my view, fair and balanced and affords any alleged transgressors every opportunity to defend themselves. Now that disciplinary process is being asked to deal with a plethora of heinous incidents which are disgusting, disrespectful and downright ignorant. There was always a ‘catch-all’ rule for bringing the Association into disrepute, but now more specific rules are required.
The GAA is unequivocal in its abhorrence of any form of racial abuse, yet we had two incidents over the past number of months which received national prominence. I have heard of similar incidents at club level.
Reported incidents of spitting are further examples of the boorish behaviour of some players and supporters.
Bringing the perpetrators of this heinous behaviour to justice poses a real challenge for the GAA. A spitting incident is likely to take place out of sight of the match officials and TV cameras which may be at the venue.
An amateur photographer may well pick up something on their iPhone and the resultant video is up on YouTube as soon as the game has finalised. While that video may well generate plenty of headlines, it cannot be used to convict an individual as it authenticity will be questioned by any alleged transgressors.
This shows the very difficult position in which the GAA finds itself. If a player alleges an incident has taken place, it may often be one man’s word against another. If such unsavoury incidents are to be eradicated from our games, team mentors and county board officers must step forward and take responsibility for the behaviour of their players.
Managing ill-mannered supporters is an altogether different problem. It may be possible to identify and ban some from of them from attending games, but ultimately their behaviour may be a matter for the law of the land.
This unacceptable behaviour by some players and supporters is creating further difficulties for county board officers. There is the understandable loyalty to their players, yet there is also the responsibility of their position to ensure that respect is shown by anyone representing the county.
When it comes to eradicating incidents such as racial abuse, spitting and ‘sledging’ from our games, those in charge of teams must be unequivocal in condemning such behaviour, particularly if their own players are involved.
Following a reported spitting incident in a recent league game, it was encouraging to see the team manager and county board chairman from a county going into their opponents’ dressing room to apologise for the misbehaviour of a supporter towards a member of their team. It was a significant gesture and I have no doubt it helped to defuse what could have been a very serious incident.
In many ways team managers can exert most pressure on their players to behave respectfully towards opponents. If a player will not listen to his manager, he is unlikely to take heed of any advice from a county board official.
Lest anyone be in doubt, this is as relevant at club level as it is at inter-county level — perhaps even more so.
The GPA’s anti-racism and anti-bullying position is to be welcomed. The players’ body has been highly effective in working with its players, but it must not let that close relationship stand in the way of condemning unacceptable behaviour by any player.
It is easy to enact rules to deal with these despicable incidents. What is not so easy is getting the hard evidence to convict the transgressors. That, though, must not deter the GAA from using every means possible to convict the culprits. Failure to observe an appropriate code of conduct and behaviour must be severely punished.
*Nickey Brennan is a former GAA president
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