Referees need to face up to rule changes
The problem with black card rule rests with those enforcing it, says John Greene
The cracks in the black card system have not just appeared in the last few weeks – they have been there from the start. The failures we have witnessed in the opening weeks of the championship could have been prevented if the failures we witnessed during the league had been properly addressed.
Long before David Coldrick failed to show a black card to Down's Conor Maginn when he pulled down Tyrone's Mark Donnelly, and then followed that up by failing to allow the five-second advantage to Donnelly as he put the ball in the net, the problem with the new rule had become apparent.
There were numerous examples during the league when referees had similarly failed to apply the black card rule, including in high-profile fixtures. The games between Dublin and Tyrone, and Dublin and Cork, come to mind. There were clear incidents involving among others Eoghan O'Gara and Seán Currie in which the black card should have been shown and wasn't.
This is not to pick on Dublin, but the fact that the most high-profile team in the country went through an entire league campaign of seven games in Division 1, a semi-final and final without receiving a single black card is simply not credible – especially when the television cameras prove otherwise. Westmeath, too, managed the same feat. Two teams, 16 games, not one trip, block or pull-down?
Pat McEnaney, chairman of the National Referees' Committee, offered a stout, although ultimately unconvincing, defence of referees on The Sunday Game last weekend. He deserves credit for facing up to the issue, even if he was only exposed to friendly fire on the night.
The thing is, on the face of it, there is no defence for referees this time. Unlike previous rule changes in the GAA, there is no ambiguity with the black card rule. It was clearly worded and explained, and right from the first weekend there was no reason for any confusion among players as to what they could and couldn't do.
However, all through the debate on cynicism in the game one factor was repeatedly overlooked: the human factor. As in, players were now going to be ordered from a game for a cynical foul in which no harm would come to the player fouled. A punch, kick, high tackle, or dangerous tackle will get you sent off, but never before would you have to leave the field of play for just sticking out your big toe to trip a player as he ran past.
It doesn't matter that this kind of cynicism has been a blight on the game, it is still seen as small-time stuff in the overall scheme of things, a petty crime, a simple misdemeanour when compared to the sort of law-breaking that can see a player serve time.
And this, it seems to me, is where referees have struggled. There is nothing wrong with the rule, or what it is seeking to achieve. It is being hampered though at a purely human level. The black card is the GAA equivalent of the motorist who has just been pulled over saying to the guard, 'I know I was probably going a bit too fast officer, but shouldn't you be out looking for murderers'.
The black card has been the victim of Ireland's confused morality. The Irish culture is one which struggles to connect the sin and the sinner – we know when a wrong has been committed, but we know too that the perpetrator 'isn't that sort of person' and we shouldn't be too hard on them.
Remember the shameful rush last year to overturn some red cards in hurling, and the clamour that the players who had been sent off had been wronged because 'they weren't that kind of player'? The truth is that few people are that kind, and yet we are still capable of an occasional slip, a momentary lapse in reason.
Last weekend, McEnaney expressed the view that there had been an over-reaction to a couple of high-profile mistakes and that the referees by and large were doing a good job.
"We've looked at eight championship matches, fully analysed them all," he said. "We've had eight black card incidents in those games and we've had six correct calls. That's a 75 per cent hit-rate."
He added that the referees have "no problem holding their hands up" to acknowledge their mistakes. McEnaney also said that while two of the specified fouls in the new rule, tripping and deliberate collisions, have not caused controversy, the third, pulling down a player, has.
But he failed to acknowledge that the problems in the championship so far are merely a continuation of what had gone before in the league.
And that the meeting of referees called to 'review' the early weeks of the championship should have been called long before then.
Gaelic football needs the black card rule, and this is the fault of players and managers who failed to take responsibility for the level of cynicism in the game. Sadly, if it fails, on the evidence so far it will be the fault of referees.
Sunday Indo Sport