Time for GAA to act on thuggery

An Cailín Rua

UGLY SCENES Tyrone and Cavan players fighting during a Dr McKenna Cup match in January. Pic by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

“Give Respect, Get Respect,” chirps the GAA. But grown men punching the heads off each other in melees (‘schmozzles’) or attacking match officials are not regular occurrences in most other sports.
It is also unusual in other sports for people from the sideline or crowd to insert themselves onto the field of play to physically target a player or official.
Such behaviour has, however, become so regular an occurrence in GAA sports that bar the odd bit of handwringing after particularly vicious incidents, it barely even makes headlines anymore, and suggests that GAA is merely providing lip service when it comes to the giving respect.
As organisations go, the GAA is rather self-congratulatory, frequently extolling its community values and worthy voluntary ethos. But no fewer than four ugly incidents involving violence have made local and national headlines in the last month alone, involving clubs from Limerick, Roscommon, and Wexford and Mayo.
Officials, players, and referees have been targeted. It is not uncommon to read of people assaulted at GAA games requiring hospitalisation or even surgery for their injuries, but rather than such incidents being outliers, instead they are emboldening people, perpetuating further bad behaviour.
Yet, the association appears unperturbed at the prevalence of such incidents and our national games’ growing reputation for thuggery.
It was therefore almost unsurprising in last week’s paper to read the refusal of a Mayo GAA official to criticise or condemn the nature of an ugly incident in a local underage game, instead choosing to take aim at those sharing footage on social media.
The only logical reason for this objection must be the potential jeopardisation of any legal action down the line, but given the indifference – even omertà – that apparently exists within the association, it falls to both traditional and modern media to keep highlighting such unacceptable and embarrassing behaviour. If such footage serves as a permanent record of the actions of grown adults who cannot control their tempers and behave like real men, then perhaps it is no bad thing.
One moment of bad behaviour should not of course, define an individual. The heat of the moment can make us all lose our tempers and behave in ways we would normally abhor. But equally there must be accountability. Whether they like it or not, players and officials involved in their chosen sport – even at a community level – shoulder a moral responsibility to uphold a decent standard of behaviour, particularly in front of younger eyes.
Most would aspire to this, but reacting to frustration with physical or verbal violence says little for either temperament or ability.
Sports psychology can help, by assisting participants to develop the coping skills needed to avoid violent or knee-jerk reactive behaviours and employ cool, clear response behaviours instead – a skill that will serve well in real life, too.
It must be noted that this problem has been nourished down the years by our commonly held attitude to ‘rough and tumble’ on the pitch. A bit of pushing and shoving is expected in GAA. ‘Getting to know each other’. ‘Handbags’.
Certain grounds are known as hostile, where the hosts will ‘welcome’ their opponents. Afterwards, they’ll (mostly) shake hands and laugh. These are the accepted terms of engagement, spectators take a certain enjoyment from them, and the game would probably feel sterile without them.
But where is the line? Spitting, eye gouging, stamping, and interfering with officials are now commonplace, nurtured by a culture of leniency and tolerance for poor behaviour.
How to change this? We hear lots about lifetime bans and disciplinary systems, but these will never be deterrents. Instead, as well as supporting referees far more, the GAA from the bottom up and top town must take a long, hard look at the association’s value system, and ask if they are okay with the culture they are enabling.
Just as incidents of casual racism and sexism form the thin edge of the wedge for more serious forms of societal violence, so too, seemingly innocuous things like verbals on the sideline contribute to a culture where it is acceptable to push the boundaries into violence and assault.
Perhaps if the GAA were to start imposing sanctions on entire teams or clubs for the violent behaviour of individuals, then we might see some rapid behaviour change. Let’s hope it happens before someone is seriously hurt, or worse.