Martin Breheny on sledging: If players don't respect each other, who will?
Verbal abuse comes from those on pitch, and they alone can eradicate it
Published 20/05/2015 | 02:30
When a player of Seán Cavanagh's stature and longevity speaks of the dark underworld of verbal goading, it behoves the rest of us to listen.
This isn't hearsay or anecdotal tittle-tattle but rather a tour of the inside track, conducted by a man who is in his 14th season as a senior inter-county player.
Cavanagh is one of the best footballers of his generation - or probably any generation for that matter - having served Moy, Tyrone, Ulster and Ireland with unyielding dedication and distinction.
In addition, he's an intelligent, engaging man, always prepared to offer forthright views. That's why the GAA community should be alarmed by his comments on Monday, when he provided the insider's view.
Some of it was alarming.
According to Cavanagh, verbal goading has left Innocent Street and headed for Malicious Row. Vicious jibes about players' personal lives, carefully researched in some cases, are regularly spat out venomously in an attempt to provoke a reaction.
There are, it seems, no boundaries. Decency is locked away in the dressing-room, presumably waiting to be re-united with its owners after the game.
Cavanagh even suggested that a mentally vulnerable player could be driven over the edge by vicious comments.
"There is so much on mental health and there are players in dark places. You would hope it wouldn't come to a stage that some player tries to do something silly if he has been abused or had a bad game and people have really gotten on his case," he said.
And so he continued, pointing out that the abuse can be extremely sinister, delving "deeper into family history, girlfriends and wives."
As for last Sunday's Donegal-Tyrone game, he said that both sides got away with things they shouldn't.
"It was just that type of game, that hot-tempered win-at-at-all costs type of Ulster championship game," he said.
He predicted more of the same - including the sledging - in next Sunday's Cavan-Monaghan game.
Cavanagh didn't apportion direct blame for anything that happened last Sunday, but naturally his comments put the focus on Donegal. Yet it's only two weeks since Tipperary complained of unsavoury behaviour during their All-Ireland U-21 final with Tyrone.
It prompted Tipperary to block the Tyrone management from their dressing-room after the game.
"We knew what we were coming into. We had the boys well-versed about what to expect verbally and not to react. There's a lot of stuff often goes on in these games that Tipperary have to learn and I think we will over the period," said Tipp manager Tommy Toomey.
Learn what exactly? Presumably, it has more to do with the darker arts than finer tactical appreciation.
Cavanagh must be aware that Tyrone teams aren't exactly regarded as wide-eyed innocents, uninformed on the more nefarious side of the game.
In fact, quite the opposite, since there have been plenty of stories of Tyrone players unloading verbal specials on opponents over the years. Not to mention the occasional judicious dive, drawing an undeserved free.
Nonetheless, he has done the game a considerable service by telling it as it is. Nor does he see any easy solution, certainly not when it comes to whispering sour somethings into an opponent's ear when the ball is at the other end of the pitch.
That's altogether different from shouting at a player who is lining up a free-kick, yet referees rarely take action against offenders, even when they hear them.
When last did you see a linesman or umpire draw the referee's attention to an incident of verbal provocation? Okay, so they won't hear them all, but surely the occasional comment must waft in their direction.
Ultimately though, only the players themselves can eradicate the sledging virus. In an age when the coarsening of society appears to be accepted as more virtue than vice, it's probably naïve to expect that respect for the opponent extends beyond the tokenistic hand-shakes before or after the game.
However, if as Sean Cavanagh suggests, deeply personal abuse has reached levels which trigger concerns about players' mental well-being, then only the dimmest and/or most malicious could miss the dangerous implications.