Only referees can bring real discipline to games
Here we go again. For the umpteenth time in the past 25 years or so we have another new plan by the GAA to stop players undermining the very fabric of football in particular by engaging in unsporting, negative, cynical and often plain dirty play.
This sort of behaviour has been the ever present blemish on all the good and wonderful things that have happened to the GAA in recent years.
These negative aspects lead to outbreaks of violence through mass brawls, as we have seen so many times in big inter-county games. They have undermined the progress of the most talented players because the cynical and negative play of opponents has often destroyed the brilliance of such players, and the paying public have been the real losers.
Having watched how other sports, most notably rugby union, have changed playing rules to not alone greatly improve the technical quality, but also the strengthening of the primacy of the referee, one has to ask why is it that the GAA cannot or will not create a similar positive attitude to Gaelic football?
As always the usual clichés are rushed out to defend football, which vary from cynical negativity to downright thuggery.
Gaelic is a physical game, it's a man's game -- it always has been. Players are under enormous pressure nowadays to perform at county level. There is a lack of uniformity among referees - you never know when a free will or will not be given.
But while the excuses keep coming, very few people address the serious damage unsporting play does to the image of the GAA and particularly the bad influence it creates with young parents when they watch this stuff on television and are influenced against encouraging their children to participate in Gaelic games.
Last Tuesday, the GAA issued the latest attempt at changing the rules in an attempt to eliminate the more negative aspects of the sport. The main difference being proposed is that more players who commit offences should be sent off for the remainder of the game and be replaced by subs, to a maximum of six.
This is a variation of 2005 proposals which requested the use of the sin-bin for players who transgressed.
There was a great deal of approval for that plan but it was scuttled by the team managers who went hysterical when they realised that at any one time, two or three players could be absent. The GAA chickened out and so the sin-bin joined a long list of redundant solutions to the problem.
There really is no need for such a list at all of course. If the referees were made enforce the present rules of the game, most of the current problems in football could be solved within one year.
There are rules in the GAA Official Guide to cover every possible infringement and if they were enforced uniformly for one season, the face of football would be changed for the better. But not enough referees will enforce the rules as per the rulebook, allied to common sense. In particular, referees are reluctant to send off players who deserve to be.
We see this in nearly every game. So what the GAA has been trying to do in recent years is get around this failure by referees to act.
First we got the yellow cards which were supposed to make it easier to send off culprits. What could be easier? A player gets a yellow card in the first half and if he commits an offence of similar gravity later on, he gets a second yellow followed by the red card.
All grand in theory until referees began to ignore fouls that clearly warranted the second yellow. Countless times we have watched players on a yellow committing a more serious offence later on, but no sign of yellow number two. The GAA, of course, erred grievously by not making yellow cards cumulative, ie a third yellow card earning an automatic suspension. "Ah, sure it would be too hard to keep track of all them yellow cards," we were told. Ever hear of computers, lads?
The reluctance of referees to send players off is a dogma of the GAA by now and represents the main threat to improving discipline. The public attitude is also against too many dismissals and how often have we heard the comment, "Look, if two or three players are sent off it will ruin the game for the spectators." As a result, we allow dirty players stay on the field in the interest of so-called entertainment.
The latest proposals, which will be implemented in the forthcoming national league and could be ratified by GAA Congress for the 2009 championship, are certainly well intended and follow a lot of useful research and analysis regarding fouling in football.
Disciplinary Task Force's chairman Liam O'Neill pulled no punches in stating the gravity of the problem when he put the onus on players to behave themselves in order to stay on the field of play.
A significant aspect about these changes is that for the first time, team managers will have to take action against their own players who break the law. Any manager who allows two or more players to be substituted will have serious questions to ask about his own ability to control his players. And the public will see that too.
That is why we are already seeing some managers complaining about the new proposals and many more will start whingeing once they realise how players who transgress will be punished. The solution is simple for those managers -- stop your players breaking the laws in a negative or destructive manner.
I would like to see the proposals being successful, but I doubt it. It will all come back to the referees, some of whom will issue black cards but chicken out of showing the nuclear yellow option. So as it has always been, the real power to make Gaelic football less negative and destructive rests with referees, not with committees.
It has never been any different.