Wednesday 28 September 2016

John Greene: If adults mess up, they are the ones who should be punished

We must remember that some rules in sport are beyond the grasp of children

Published 28/06/2015 | 17:00

Some rules about sport administration are beyond the comprehension of children, and should not impact on them
Some rules about sport administration are beyond the comprehension of children, and should not impact on them

On Monday, June 8 I received an email from an official of the Meath ladies county board. A number of girls on the county's under 14 panel were not registered and they were due to face Cork that Saturday in the All-Ireland semi-final. One of the girls was from my own club. And I was in charge of registration. Panic set in.

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To explain, membership of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association expires each year on May 31 so all players and mentors must renew by that date.

There was a time when registrations were completed by each county board's registrar and sent to the LGFA's head office but this changed last year when the Association introduced a similar online database to the one used by the GAA. Under the new system, clubs register their members directly with the LGFA.

There are, though, some crucial differences, and this is why panic set in.

Many ladies football clubs are now under the same umbrella as their local GAA club - and long term it makes sense that the GAA, LGFA and Camogie Association follow suit and operate as one - and so in a lot of clubs, including ours, registrars often fulfil both roles. And, like many clubs, we use the GAA's database as our principal record of all club members. Separately, however, those who are involved in any capacity with the LGFA - as a player, mentor or official - must then also be registered on the other database.

The player affected from our club was registered on March 31, which is the GAA's cut-off date, but, along with several other players, I overlooked her when doing a batch of LGFA memberships in late April - easy to do when poring over hundreds of names.

Still with me? Good. It gets trickier.

Unlike the GAA, the system of payment to the LGFA is complicated and works best if you use a credit or debit card through PayPal. There have been teething problems in the first two years, especially in processing payments and last year I ran into difficulty in this regard.

Which is why I was panicked. I did not want to be the reason that a girl whose membership had been paid to the club in plenty of time would be denied an opportunity to be involved in an All-Ireland semi-final because of a simple error on my part.

The under 14s had beaten Dublin in the Leinster final nine days earlier, on May 30. This was a big result for Meath, who are putting in a lot of work on the ground, trying hard to revitalise their county teams. But for those who had not had their membership renewed by their clubs on May 31, the message was sent out loud and clear - the girls would not be involved in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork if it was not sorted.

On Tuesday, June 9, around tea time, I learned my first attempt at registering the player had failed. The payment hadn't gone through. I tried again. Later that night, I checked the bank details and it appeared as if this time it had gone through.

When a player is registered, a green tick appears beside her name on the database. I checked on Wednesday evening, but there was a big red X. I checked again on Thursday morning. No change. That afternoon, when I logged into the database I was relieved to see the green tick. I had the diligence of a Meath board official - who had taken it upon herself to double-check the squad before such a big game - to thank for alerting me in time.

The LGFA says that, "If a player is unregistered and participates in a game or training session they are not covered by the Injury Fund, meaning that should serious injury occur, the player and parents will not be covered for the financial hardship incurred as well as the obvious dangers to the health of the player."

The thing about rules is that they must be applied without fear or favour. If they are not, they are redundant. The other thing about rules is that they can very often be unfair.

In sport, there are two sets of rules, one governing what happens on the field of play, the other what happens off it. One set strives to keep law and order among the competitors, the other tries to prevent short cuts and cheating.

On the day that Meath played Cork (in a game won by Cork), Galway beat Cavan 3-11 to 1-12 in the other semi-final. However, it has since emerged that one of the Galway players was not registered. On June 18, the LGFA's Central Council met to discuss the matter and, as per rule, the Galway board was fined €100 and the game was awarded to Cavan, who will now play Cork in the All-Ireland final next Saturday in Banagher.

A parent of one of the Galway players was quoted in the Connacht Tribune as saying that his daughter had cried herself to sleep when she heard the news. She said to him, "Why dad, why? We did nothing wrong; it's not fair, it's just not fair."

The LGFA says it advised the Galway board on the Thursday before the game that one player was not registered; the Galway board says it acted immediately but an issue arose with the processing of the payment and although they say the money left her club's bank account, it did not arrive in time with the LGFA.

The Connacht Tribune story began as follows: 'The All-Ireland hopes and dreams of Galway's U14 ladies football squad were shattered to smithereens this week after they were unceremoniously dumped out of the championship on a boardroom technicality.'

The Association's rules are clear and, on the basis that they must be applied without fear or favour, there was no option but to find as it did.

Except there is another option. And this extends far beyond the LGFA. When it comes to underage sport, there are rules around administration which have no bearing or relevance to the children who play.

They are there to make sure that adults who have put themselves into a position of some importance act appropriately at all times: that they register children who have paid their membership so that they are insured and officially recognised as a member of whatever association they are involved with; that they carry out their administrative roles for the greater good, and for the benefit of the children they are overseeing as opposed to their own benefit; that they do not take short cuts; that they do not engender some sort of win-at-all-costs attitude which goes against the fundamental premise of underage sport . . . and so on.

It is a problem in underage sport that we end up with outcomes such as this - with young girls crying themselves to sleep over something which is pretty much beyond their comprehension, something which is an adult solution to an adult problem. Remember all the schools' soccer teams who were expelled from their leagues because teachers had messed up the registration process?

We must accept that the LGFA had no choice in this case because the rule is clear - and most sporting bodies have a similar type of rule in place. What should happen in these instances, and what all organisations should look at doing as a matter of priority, is to change the rule.

When it comes to children playing sport, they should not be punished because of the administrative errors of adults. Fines, bans for the adults who messed up, withdrawal of grant support - these are all the type of sanctions which are more appropriate when there are administrative failures around underage sport.

A real problem in a lot of youth sports is adults projecting grown-up notions and, yes, petty grown-up squabbles, onto the children playing. That needs to change. Let the children play. And if adults mess up, then they are the ones who should be punished.

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