Spirit of the games under attack
The sledging solution lies in leadership on the sideline and in Croke Park's offices
Something came to mind after Seán Cavanagh voiced concern about the depths which sledging has plumbed in Gaelic football. It concerns a visit ten years ago to a school in Cookstown of the Sam Maguire, displayed to the children of the Red Hand revolution which had swept up two All-Irelands in three years. This was one of a long list of engagements that the cup's minder, Cuthbert Donnelly, a long-time Tyrone officer and GAA man, had pencilled into his diary. When overseas, Cuthbert kept the cup in a protective case he'd personally commissioned so that it would come to no harm. Cuthbert is one of those people for whom respect for the Sam was an instinctive thing, like respect for your opponent and the game you play.
For a couple of days we moved between schools and private homes observing the joy and wonder that this cup brought to ordinary people. It was raining heavily the day we drove to the school in Cookstown. Among the Tyrone players present were Peter Canavan and Ryan McMenamin and at some stage the kids were invited to ask the players questions. Not being burdened by protocol or shyness one child asked Ryan what it was he said when he talked to players from the other side. Ryan, presumably not the first time he'd been asked, gave some light response; he might have asked their favourite colour.
A couple of things are evident in that exchange. McMenamin was a role model to those kids and this child's overriding impression of him was of his well-known fondness for gamesmanship. Now ten years on some might see it as ironic that a Tyrone footballer has decided it is time to take a stand on sledging. A shift has occurred undoubtedly. The content is now more malicious and pre-meditated than ever. But the practice has not only been tolerated, but celebrated. In later tributes to Ryan McMenamin, this gabby streak in his playing personality was laughed off as a harmless bit of fun or as being symptomatic of a quirky character in an increasingly bland world.
There are famous hurlers of the past 20 years who were notoriously lippy too, and paid little heed to an opponent's mental health and the possibility that he might be fragile upstairs. Indeed, the more fragile the better. It is not a new thing but strong claims that it is becoming more commonplace are something the GAA needs to take very seriously and not be slow to respond to.
There is a dark irony in this given that GAA players are happy to promote the importance of young men's mental health and well-being, yet there are some who see nothing absurd in pulling on a jersey for the county and then wiring into some opponent over his dead father or reciting his girlfriend's phone number.
Presumably, Seán Cavanagh is only too well aware of the accusations levelled at his county's under 21 team after their recent win over Tipperary in Parnell Park. Yet it is good that he has come out and said what he did. Trying to eradicate this kind of behaviour through stricter refereeing will be a waste of time. You need more names like Cavanagh, and even the players on the receiving end, to come forward and speak their minds and put those responsible to shame. They have done so on other issues relating to player welfare and this is no less necessary. Later in the week a story emerged of a Donegal minor being goaded by an opponent over his father's death. So it is catching on. Minor this year, maybe under 16 in a year's time. Add in the gloating and triumphalism on show in Ballybofey and it sours what was, otherwise, a very entertaining and absorbing match.
"I just believe in general it is not a serious or major issue but we should not allow it become one," was the response of the GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail when he spoke to this newspaper on Thursday evening. "And I feel any level of verbal abuse is wrong; I would have zero tolerance for it. Zero tolerance. Also, I know from talking to players, that when a manager changes it can have an effect. There was one quite high-profile team in Ireland who were very badly known for it and with a change of manager it changed overnight. Therefore, that would inform me a manager can stop it, therefore he can start it.
"I coached, and I can speak with some experience, not with authority but with the experience of having coached a team for 25 years, and any player who spends their whole time thinking of saying bad things they are wasting their energy. But it is wrong when it happens."
The former Kerry manager Pat O'Shea, a coaching officer in Munster, believes coaches and managers can exert more influence. "True leadership means people must stand up to this. How do I want my team to behave? The rivalry between Kerry and Cork is as intense as anything in the world, it has never degenerated into that, there is huge respect among the counties who play. They have had a healthy relationship because there is a respect and a line you don't cross.
"The key word for me is education in all of this. The GPA has been very silent on this whole issue, do they have a role to say to players to desist from this? So I think what people are saying is: this is not very prevalent in the game. It needs to stop. The people who stop it are people in authority, people need to be told you are demeaning yourself and the people you represent by behaving in that manner."
O'Shea, like Ó Fearghail, says it doesn't work. "Contrary to what they seem to think, this does not contribute to you winning a game, as much as you think you are really getting into his head, talking about his mother and brother and sister, that kind of stuff does not win you a game, and it certainly doesn't win you friends. There are people out there who think it will knock a player off his stride but in the main they are facing experienced players who are playing a long time; it does not faze them, although it's unpleasant.
"The problem is there are a number of players who continue to be glorified because of this. People in the past saw it as a badge of honour. The big picture is the lack of responsibility from the people in the main positions. If people in these positions accepted their role in dealing with this it would be changed fairly quickly. I have to say to you we don't get too much of it down here. I am not saying that we are all angels."
Art McRory, the former Tyrone manager, sees sledging as "symptomatic" of a general race to the bottom, another element in a suite of cynical ploys and tactics damaging the game's reputation. "That's the way it has gone, win at all costs," he says.
"Cynical play has crept into the game. And much more so in the last three or four years. I don't want to name names but there are certain teams who seem to have begun this whole trend, this win-at-all-costs trend, and certainly it has spread around Ulster. If your team is not good enough, if you don't have the players, then you find some other way.
"I remember one particular player (in the 1970s) who was famous for it. Tyrone were playing Galway one day and apparently he grabbed the jersey of one of the very prominent Galway players and says, 'boys,' says he, 'I smell turf, he's a blood gypsy'. This was the type of thing you heard. Apparently, it was unreal the stuff he came out with."
McRory remembers a league match between Tyrone and Derry when Joe Brolly was "in his pomp" and the same individual, long retired, tugging McRory's arm during the national anthem and going: 'The national anthem!'
"'What about it?' McRory responded.
"'It'll have to be done while the national anthem is playing. The only chance you have of getting him (Brolly) is now.'
"He was regarded as the hardest little man in Tyrone but sledging was his stock in trade. But it was regarded a joke more than anything serious. It has gone on to a different level since."
McRory has heard of teams researching the private lives of opposing players to find material to use during match time. "I would say that I know of no manager who would encourage it or any manger that would tolerate it. I introduced Ryan McMenamin to the Tyrone panel. A sounder and more rounded individual you couldn't meet. I couldn't say enough good things about him. He gives you this corner boy image on the football field but he is anything but. Another man who had that image was John Lynch.
"My problem is that the young fellas looking at it reckon this is the way to do it. They will grow up with this unless the GAA tackles it at the top level. The GAA dealt very quickly with the racial issue when a player complained he was racially abused. I do think that overall the rules, the pace of development of the game, has surpassed the ability of the people in Croke Park to legislate for so many aspects. It is legislated for with this black card, if refs did not turn a deaf ear to it. I mean refs are refusing as a body to use the black card."
Did you not want to win at all costs? "We did. But there were lines. You went up and you put your foot to the line but you did not cross it. I mean if you wanted to win at all costs all you do is injure the top player in the other team. It has got to nearly that now. You saw it on Sunday where (Michael) Murphy was patrolled virtually out of the game. You see, that is the next phase.
"I can go back to the '90s when Meath were in the ascendancy and their tactics were very simple: the top player on the other team was targeted and everyone within 20 metres of him went in and hit him with everything they had."
Sledging creeping into juvenile games is a prospect he doesn't want to think about. "If your under 14 team started this you would be horrified. Absolutely. But that is what will happen if the GAA is not seen to be strong on it. What happens in county matches translates to club matches and on down the line."
He has heard the charge of sledging levelled against his county's under 21 team. "I would be absolutely disgusted and would also be surprised because Feargal Logan (their manager) wouldn't entertain it. I can categorically assure you of that. He would not tolerate it. I find that (behaviour) absolutely disgusting. I would be disappointed if it did (happen) and would be disappointed if it was seen that Tyrone teams were coming across with this."
He says one of the worst examples of sledging he heard of concerned the tragic death of Michaela Harte. "The Hartes got some stick: Peter, and I imagine Mickey wasn't immune to it, in county games. That (death of Michaela) was used. It was a neutral linesman who told me, that Peter Harte was taking a sideline and this player from another county came up and what he said was desperate."
Seán Potts of the GPA says that the players' body need "empirical evidence" more than mere anecdotes before deciding what might be necessary to deal with the problem if it exists at a profound level. He points to their respect initiatives, which they have been promoting along with the GAA since 2009, advocating good sportsmanship in games. He says knee-jerk reactions will not be effective.
Ó Fearghail talks of the importance of those programmes and education. "I still see it at juvenile level where we are overly competitive. I hear it at club games, I think people shout too much abuse from the sideline to players. It is a culture of win at all costs. It is important, winning, but not the be all and end all.
"The one thing I would say instantly, within our rules, verbal abuse is a black-card offence. To my knowledge we have not had a player sent off for that. I always feel sorry for a referee but the game evolves and I think we will be speaking to them, they have to be conscious of the fact that occasionally verbal abuse is serious and just as serious as physical abuse. It is a black-card offence. But the big way of tackling it is from within. Team managers have to have a certain influence over the behaviour of players."
O'Shea sees it as an attack on the spirit of the GAA. "There is honour, there is integrity about playing our games - this certainly goes to the heart of what the Association is all about, when people drag in very personal comments about family and that, that certainly is going way beyond where it should be. Was it always there? In little bits, yeah. In certain individuals. I suppose the irony is that some of the people who are very concerned now are probably associated with some of the greatest offenders over the last decade or so.
"I think history will tell you that norms and examples of good and bad practice are copied. At lower levels from a coaching perspective we would have seen that when so-called blanket defending came in, negative tactics, it quickly worked its way down to club level, to schools level, it became obvious people were taking on the fads. If it is glorified or accepted people will follow it and this is where true leadership is required at county level, to ensure your team goes out to represent its people in the best order, to play the game the way it is supposed to be played."
Ó Fearghail is looking forward to being in Breffni Park today and mentions the many positive elements the game offers. But he is mindful of not being complacent. "It is a major issue if one player, it could be my son, gets a nasty and horrible comment that causes them to delve into deep depression over it. It is not part of the Gaelic ethos. Not part of the GAA ethos.
"We had a player who is now a pundit who blew kisses to the crowd after scoring and I was at matches where that happened. That encouraged goading, that encouraged missiles being thrown on the pitch, that encouraged bad sporting behaviour, and I wouldn't condone any of them. I think anything that raises any individual above the team is wrong.
"If a fella hits you a bad thump - I played the game myself - you might lash out verbally and use a bad word. That happens. And maybe it shouldn't but it does. But the verbals that some people tell me happen, some of the things that are being said to be premeditated and even researched, that's wrong. It is just not the GAA."
Sunday Indo Sport
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