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Pat Spillane: Culture of violence and verbal abuse in GAA must be eradicated

A recent study published by the Ulster University found that 95pc of GAA referees had experienced verbal abuse and almost a quarter suffered physical abuse.

The two captains, Seán Kelly of Galway and Aidan Nugent of Armagh, are issued with red cards before the start of extra time after a melee at the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Armagh and Galway. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Referee on the ground after a shocking attack in Roscommon

Both sides scuffle after the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Donegal and Armagh. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Players and officials from both sides become embroiled as they make their way to the dressing rooms after full time ended in a draw at the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Armagh and Galway. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

6 February 2022; Referee David Gough shows a red card to Tyrone players, from left, Peter Harte, Michael McKernan and Padraig Hampsey during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Armagh and Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

13 December 2020; Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael John Horan with William O'Donoghue of Limerick following the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Limerick and Waterford at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

26 June 2022; Damien Comer of Galway is shown a yellow card by referee David Coldrick during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Armagh and Galway at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

RATHER than go shooting from the hip about the latest spate of violent incidents in the GAA, I decided to let the dust settle before commenting on them.

I’m not shocked, horrified or surprised by this latest spate of unsavoury clashes.

A recent study published by the Ulster University found that 95pc of GAA referees had experienced verbal abuse and almost a quarter suffered physical abuse.

Of course, the findings make grim reading. But they merely confirm what everybody already knows – the GAA has a serious problem in this area.

Hands up, both as a player and spectator I have been as guilty as anybody when it comes to questioning refereeing decisions.

However, in recent years I have learned to keep my mouth shut during games.

As long as I have been involved in the GAA, abusing referees has been an issue.

Referee after attack in Roscommon

Teachers, for example, are supposed to be role models. Well, two of the worst offenders I ever came across were both teachers who were in charge of all the teams in their respective schools throughout my teaching days in Bantry.

They are more akin to lunatics on the sideline than role models. In short they were an embarrassment to the GAA and to their schools. Yet nothing was ever done about them.

Somebody asked me recently what I thought my legacy would be from spending 30 years on the Sunday Game.

I had no hesitation in replying that my role in highlighting acts of thuggery by so-called hard men on the GAA field was my biggest achievement.

AFL D1 match between Donegal and Armagh© SPORTSFILE

Repeatedly putting them under the spotlight helped to eradicate them. So much so that they’re now an endangered species – at least at inter-county level.

But there remains an unacceptable culture of abuse and acts of violence on the field from juvenile up to elite clubs. Worst still, the GAA continue to tolerate this behaviour.

This season was no better nor worse than previous years. Here is just a cursory summary of the high-profile incidents at county level.

February 6: Four Tyrone players and one Armagh player are red carded by David Gough after a row during their league clash.

March 29:Following a melee at the end of the Armagh v Donegal league tie in Letterkenny, three Armagh players and two Donegal players are hit with one-match bans. Another Armagh player is banned as a result of a separate incident. However, three of the Armagh players successfully appealed their bans.

June 26:At the end of the drawn All-Ireland quarter-final between Galway and Armagh, a full scale row involving the majority of the players, substitutes and non-playing substitutes erupts after the final whistle. Galway’s Damien Comer has his eye gouged during the fracas.

Armagh’s Tiernan Kelly is hit with a 24-week ban; team-mates Conor Turbitt and Blaine Hughes were banned for one game along with Galway’s Cathal Sweeney.

More recently, the attention has switched to club activity. Earlier this month in Roscommon, a referee had to be taken to hospital after an alleged incident with a team mentor.

An U-11 hurling game in Kerry between Abbeydorney and Ballyduff was abandoned by the referee as a result of unacceptable behaviour by a team mentor.

It is worth pointing out that this competition operates under a silent sideline policy with no score keeping.

A couple of weeks ago I received a video from an underage match in Cork in which a team mentor knocked out a player from the opposing team.

I could fill not just this column but the entire sports section with a list of incidents which have besmirched the name of the GAA over the decades.

Players and officials become embroiled after full time in the Armagh and Galway clash© SPORTSFILE

Take your pick from a long list which includes a challenge game I played in at New York’s Gaelic Park between Dublin and Kerry in 1978.

Three were sent off – but at least seven others should have been dismissed. It was an orgy of violence from start to finish.

Four players, three from Dublin and one from Galway were dismissed in the 1983 All-Ireland final.

Mayo’s John Finn sustained a broken jaw during the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final between Mayo and Dublin. The culprit was never identified.

There was an all-in brawl in the 1996 All-Ireland Final replay between Meath and Mayo.

Only two players were dismissed, but at least eight more could have received their marching orders.

Subsequently eight Meath players were banned for a total of 24 months, while seven Mayo players received suspensions mounting to 15 months.

Four players were sent-off in the ‘Battle of Omagh’ between Dublin and Tyrone in 2006.

Seven others were subsequently banned. But guess what? Their suspensions were quashed on a technicality.

Five red cards were issued during a Division 2 league tie between Dublin and Meath in 2008. Ultimately, 16 players, eight from each side, including the five sent off, were hit with bans ranging from four to eight weeks.

And physical violence is not the only issue the GAA has to face up to.

The Association has a problem with racial abuse as well.

Westmeath’s Boidu Sayeh and Stefan Okunbor from Kerry have both gone on the record about the racial abuse they have endured on the field of play.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Down’s hurling manager Ronan Sheehan spoke about the sectarian abuse his players were subjected to during a National Hurling League tie against Carlow.

Four years ago, the then GAA President John Horan (right) stressed the need for the Association to take a zero tolerance approach to acts of violence on the field.

“They have no place in our game. Players who engage in these incidents should be adequately punished. The culture of covering up for them in committee rooms needs to be eradicated. These incidents are not above the law. An act of violence is an act of violence.”

I imagine if I searched through the archive I would find similar quotes from high ranking GAA officials going back through the decades.

So why do we still have a problem?

In no particular order, here are the reasons why?

When the dust settled on the fall-out after the Armagh v Tyrone game back in February referee David Gough made an interesting contribution to the debate.

He said: ‘I did my job; I stood back. I observed and I took notes. I consulted; I implemented the rules. I wrote my report and that’s all I could do. Once my report is gone from my hands I have been washed of it.”

In this specific incident the one-match bans imposed on the players were upheld. But frankly this was more the exception than the rule.

A recurring weakness in the GAA disciplinary system is: A) the reluctance of players, managers and County Boards to accept punishment and B) the ability of so-called GAA lawyers to find loopholes in the application of the rules.

There is a thriving GAA cottage industry in ‘finding the loophole’.

We’re world experts at it and until this culture is eradicated there are going to be problems.

Don’t tell me it cannot be done – we eventually accepted the smoking ban, for example.

There is no adequate punishment to deal with serial offenders.

The Armagh County Board and team management needs to be held accountable for their involvement in three major incidents this season, for example.

County Boards and clubs have to stop appointing mentors of any kind who have a track record of losing the head on the sideline.

We all know them and have seen them in action.

And please don’t offer the excuse that they put in savage commitment and come from respected GAA families.

As an organisation the GAA excel at turning the blind eye. There is a sort of passive acceptance of a certain level of misbehaviour on the field. How often have we heard the phrase ‘ah, sure it was only handbags stuff’.

But as we witnessed in the Armagh v Galway fracas, when pushing and shoving is tolerated, it can lead to far more serious incidents.

Too often the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Light touch regulation and minimum suspensions are the norm.

Clubs must also take some responsibly for their ‘lunatic’ supporter(s) who hurl abuse at every game. We all know them.

Even though nearly every parent endeavours to pass on the best values to their children, some of them manage to lose the run of themselves when watching their off-spring in juvenile matches.

They are often the most vocal abusers of match officials.

There is lack of respect for referees at all levels of the GAA. Too often their decisions are questioned and there is too much verbal abuse hurled at them.

Spare me all the crocodile tears and all the nonsense about physicality being part and parcel of the game.

Worse still is the fake outrage when a serious incident does occur and then the tendency is to point the figure of blame at somebody else.

We are all responsible; we are all hypocrites; we all occupy the three monkeys philosophy of see, hear and speak no evil when it suits us.

Listen, this problem is not going away. Actions speaks louder than words. And we need action now.

We need leadership as well and this must come from the very top.

No more fancy signs, gimmicky campaigns, glitzy photo shoots in Croke Park or another committee with the usual suspects on board examining the problem.

As John Horan said four years ago we need to take a zero tolerance approach to acts of violence on the field, otherwise this blight will fester and grow.

The Latin phrase ‘carpe diem’, seize the day is what is needed from the GAA now. No more waffling or moralising – just take action.

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