Thursday 19 September 2019

Liam Collins: 'Time to blow the whistle on sports thuggery'

What turns normally polite people into violent, abusive sports fans, asks Liam Collins

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Stock picture
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

I was shocked at a recent GAA minor hurling match in south county Dublin at the undertone of violence on, and particularly off, the pitch.

Club 'mentors' were screaming "for f...k's sake" every time one of their players missed a tackle or failed to score. The torrent of abuse at the referee was not only uncalled for, but the most vocal attacks were usually wrong.

What made it even more unpalatable was that those in charge of the team I had gone to support - because one of the players was the son of a friend - were by far the worst.

After the game some players were restraining each other from attacking the opposition. Club officials had surrounded the referee and were remonstrating with him over his handling of the game.

The two clubs involved are within a couple of miles of each other. Most of the players knew each other; some were even friends because they went to the same schools.

I don't blame the players - their behaviour was mild compared with the disgraceful displays of aggression, foul language and sheer bad example displayed by the adults involved with the teams. They were effing and blinding with abandon as other parents, some of them with young children, stood alongside them.

What sort of example are they giving?

Of course, many of these people give a huge amount of time and commitment to the young people involved in games as coaches, mentors and good 'clubmen'.

But as I was walking away from the game, and by the way it wasn't unusual, I wondered what it is that makes grown men who probably hold down good jobs and are normally polite, good living folk, behave like hooligans when they get involved in team sports?

It just doesn't seem rational, but it is widespread in all team sports played by boys and girls, men and women.

Is it because they are trying to live vicariously through their children, to experience in some way the thrill of success that eluded them when they were young and fit and maybe more innocent in the ways of the world than they are today?

Last week the Dublin and District Schoolboys League (DDSL) reported that seven matches - some of them involving children as young as 11 - had to be abandoned in the last six weeks because of unsavoury incidents, including adults striking out at young players.

"Instead of setting a good example, unfortunately in a growing number of cases the choice is to verbally abuse and/or resort to violence," the league said. This could be applied across many team sports all over the country.

Of course there has always been aggression and the will to win in sport at all levels. Sometimes it is the only difference between two sets of skilful players. You have only to read the memoirs of many senior and respected figures in sport to see the level of violence and dirty tricks that players are prepared to go to, to get that tiny fraction of advantage that makes the difference between winning and losing that coveted match or trophy.

But isn't it time that a line was drawn between rough and tough play and downright violence, both on and off the pitch? On launching the DDSL report, chairman Paddy Dempsey said players - particularly those at a younger age - are influenced by adults attending matches.

"If this happened on the street, they would be arrested and charged with assault," he said, "the sooner they realise it's not acceptable in society, it's really not acceptable in sport and even more so with children's football," he said.

People do get wound up at football, hurling or rugby matches and that's part of being a supporter. But if you cannot control those emotions, then maybe you shouldn't be going to the match at all.

Years ago when my daughter was playing Gaelic football I found it very difficult to restrain myself from shouting at her - until she made it quite plain to me that when I shouted she switched off.

Like every father, I thought my own child was very talented, but I thought she could do better. But she wanted to play the game on her terms, not mine.

When she got into a development squad I took her to her first training session and listened for two hours at coaches shouting and verbally harassing the girls. Maybe they were trying to separate the wheat from the chaff early on. They certainly succeeded in my daughter's case because afterwards she said she wouldn't be doing that again.

People can argue that "you are playing senior hurling now", as they do. But that does not justify some of the excesses that we see every weekend - with talented amateur sportsmen specifically targeted and "taken out" by aggression-filled players with less talent.

Winning at all costs is a dangerous concept in almost any way of life, and sport should be different.

It really is high time that parents stayed at home if they can't behave themselves on the sidelines. And it would also be good for clubs, in all sports, to have a special day set aside for coaches, trainers, and mentors to praise them for what they do but teach them a sideline manner that displays good examples, rather than the manic behaviour we see every Saturday and Sunday.

They say that nobody remembers the losing team, and while that may be true it is also true that people know a team that wins unfairly - and nobody forgets or forgives them for that.

Sunday Independent

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