All rules in world won't fix GAA when refs go unheeded
The GAA is a great sports organisation, one of the best in the world of amateur sport, and it is the excitement of the games of hurling and football which are at the very heart of the organisation. But, in the past decade or so, the very fabric of the games have been consistently challenged at all levels by its own members in the area of discipline.
We get examples of this at club and county level every week of the year. In the past week, for example, a prominent player -- Ryan McMenamin -- and his equally famous County Board in Tyrone, contested decisions made by a GAA disciplinary body in Croke Park, as was their right.
But when the penalty arising from the recent Tyrone-Kerry league game was not rescinded or lessened, did the two parties accept the ruling and move on? No way. Instead, both are proceeding to the next highest appeals body in the GAA and there is the strong possibility that if they do not get what they want from that body, they will take their case to the highest appeals body in the GAA, the DRA.
There is nothing unusual about McMenamin's or Tyrone's approach because this behaviour is now the norm in the GAA. The first reaction of GAA people when a suspension or fine is applied is to start working on ways to undermine the original decision, almost as a matter of course. From U-12 players to adult level, there is an absence of genuine sportsmanship and this has many facets.
The most obvious is the indiscipline of GAA bodies themselves, such as clubs and County Boards. Too many times, when a member of a club or county team is found to be guilty of indiscipline, the first to defend the culprit is one of these official GAA bodies. County Boards and clubs will nearly always defend their own player and will use every trick in the book to find a legal loophole to avoid what should be legitimate punishment.
Yet, these are the very bodies who are supposed to administer GAA justice within the confines of their own counties. The case of Cork footballer, Anthony Lynch, a few years ago in a Munster final with Kerry was a good (or bad) example of that policy when Cork's top brass worked the oracle to get the player's suspension lifted.
Leading GAA administrators at county and club level rarely, if ever, apologise when their players offend seriously, but instead look to the rulebook to evade justice. Is it any wonder that indiscipline is now endemic in the GAA? The GAA itself even encourages indiscipline by providing at least three separate opportunities for suspended players to avoid punishment. I am not aware of that happening in any other sporting body or even the legal system itself. This merely reflects the overall attitude to indiscipline in the GAA.
Another example is when a player is sent off for dirty play in front of a large crowd. Rather than his own mentors or officials reprimanding the culprit, in most cases, the team manager will escort the player off the field with a hug as if to say: 'Hard luck, son. It was a harsh decision. That referee hasn't a clue. But we will get you off, don't worry.'
With a history of indiscipline in the GAA, is it any wonder that the referees, whose immediate task in games is to apply discipline through the rulebook, are very much outsiders in the whole process? Everybody gives out about referees, from schoolboy level up. Big-name players try to intimidate referees subtly and proposed disciplinary changes of the GAA may further dent the already damaged credibility of referees.
For over 100 years, one GAA rule was sacrosanct, stating that in all situations the decision of the referee was absolute and could not be changed by any outside body. That may have been draconian, and indeed many serious miscarriages of justice were perpetrated by referees, but now the referees have been undermined by every Tom, Dick and Harry who can cause the ref's decision to be changed by word of mouth or video evidence.
This has led to some disastrous attacks on the status of referees in official circles and many have been made figures of fun as a result. The GAA never had any respect for referees in the first place, but the practice of changing their decisions behind closed doors in committees has done terrible damage. From speaking to many former players, it is clear that when former famous players were refereeing, the situation was a lot better than it is now because the players had total respect for the refs. Although not a famous ex-player, Paddy Collins of Westmeath was the referee who elicited total respect from players, officials and fans when I was involved with teams. But that was rare indeed.
If the GAA really wants to stop indiscipline and encourage more manly play, they should start with bringing respect for referees to the standard of rugby union. That would force players to obey referees to the letter of the law, would prevent them mouthing off at refs and would engender much greater respect for the playing rules because players would have to stop contesting nearly every decision.
As I have often stated before, the GAA has already got enough laws to prevent disrespect for referees, but the referees themselves do not apply these laws -- mainly because they know the relevant officials will not back them up. That is why the status of referees remains so low and it all comes back to the GAA's historical attitude of treating referees as the lowest rank in the whole game's chain of command.
Until that changes, the GAA can have as many new rules as they like, but nothing will change. Referees will always be 'negotiable' as far as players and officials are concerned and discipline will continue to remain a mere opinion instead of as it should be: an absolute unchanging dogma.