Tuesday 20 February 2018

Sin-bin option looks too good to be dismissed

GAA disciplinary procedures should follow example of other codes, says Jack Anderson

In the hectic last five minutes of this year's All-Ireland football final, Dublin scored three crucial points. Kevin Nolan, Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton all won praise for the way they took their scores, as did Kevin McMenamon for drawing the foul that resulted in the winning kick.

Looking back over the tape, one player had a significant role in all three moves: Dublin full-forward Diarmuid Connolly.

Connolly's availability for the final was not without controversy. In the semi-final against Donegal he was shown a red card which resulted in him receiving an automatic four-week, one-match suspension. However, the GAA's Central Hearings Committee (CHC) later cleared Connolly to play.

The immediate reaction to the CHC's decision was that it was in sympathy with the player for what was perceived as an impetuous slap provoked by a Donegal player who subsequently made the most of it. In the longer term, the Connolly incident tells us two things about the GAA's current disciplinary system.

The first is that it shows the difficulties of implementing meaningful and proportionate playing suspensions for the GAA's championships.

Unlike professional sport, fining a GAA player is not an option. Game bans can also have a disproportionate effect. A championship season can run to as few as four matches in hurling and five in football. Given that a one-match ban can rule players out of as much as a quarter of the season it is understandable that, after all the training and preparation, they desperately pursue off-field appeals.

There is little doubt that if Connolly's plea had been turned down by the CHC an appeal to the Central Appeals Committee (CAC) and even to the GAA's Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) would have been considered. The accompanying speculation and hype would have been distracting for the Dublin camp and attracted adverse publicity for the GAA's disciplinary system as, understandably, every effort would likely have been made by Dublin to exploit any loopholes in the regulations.

From reviewing the disciplinary systems of many sports worldwide, it appears the best way both to punish players, and avoid subsequent lengthy and legalistic disciplinary hearings, is to have effective on-field punishments.

Put simply, if the sin-bin had been available to referee Maurice Deegan he would likely have used it and Connolly would have been given ten minutes to cool off.

Although the sin-bin was largely discredited by managers at the time of its trial in 2005, the Connolly incident might prompt the GAA to look at it again or even other options such as a red card replacement rule, rather than leaving matters to the off-field machinations of the committee room.

The second point of concern is that in any disciplinary system there is going to be an underlying tension between, on the one hand, sympathy for the individual who has done something they immediately regret but should strictly pay dearly for and, on the other hand, the need for the sport as a whole to be seen to have a consistently fair disciplinary code for all.

How does the CHC's decision on Connolly stand against the unsuccessful appeal by Kerry's Marc Ó Sé against a four-week ban handed to him for striking Dublin's Eoghan O'Gara during an Allianz Division 1 game in March? Similarly, what about the CHC's refusal to overturn a one-month ban against Meath's Brian Farrell for the "probable" occurrence of an offence in a tussle with Kildare's Emmet Bolton in the Leinster championship in May?

Apparent inconsistencies are inevitable in any disciplinary system especially where natural justice demands that careful account be taken of the individual circumstances.

Arguably, however, the unpredictability of the GAA's current system is aggravated by its 'alphabet soup' of committees (CCCC; CHC; CAC; DRA etc). Reflecting on his own disciplinary problems arising out of the so-called Semplegate affair of 2007, Donal Óg Cusack likened the GAA's multi-layered disciplinary system to Las Vegas -- you always got another chance to spin the wheel.

Again, best practice from other sports shows that a disciplinary system can be built around a straightforward three-tier system, co-ordinated by a full-time disciplinary official, in which on-field referees are backed by a citing commissioner system, a permanently standing disciplinary tribunal (consisting of no more than three persons; for example, an ex-official, a former player and a person with a legal background) and a single avenue of appeal.

Adapting this to the GAA, at the end of each inter-county week the disciplinary officer could take into account referees' and citing commissioners' reports in order to make recommendations to the tribunal as to the length of suspension a player should serve. A player could then either accept or request a full hearing. Any hearing could be heard by a tribunal sitting within the week. An appeal to a DRA-type body would be on narrow, technical grounds only, with additional penalties for a claim that is seen to be trivial in nature.

This model is based largely on that which operates in Australian Rules. The AFL example is interesting because in the 1980s it realised that, although a small core of supporters liked regular punch-ups during games, if the sport was to appeal more widely to parents, children and sponsors it would have to clean up its act.

It might not always be apparent from the international rules series but Australian rules is now a much cleaner and more skilful sport. And despite a very competitive sporting environment, the AFL is thriving. In April, it announced a TV rights deal for 2012 to 2016 worth over €930m, which will help it expand even further. Not bad for a regional sport that had an image problem.

In summary, the message for the GAA from Australia and elsewhere in sport is simple: protect referees strongly; apply the rules fairly; deal with appeals consistently; and the game will benefit both on and off the field.

Jack Anderson lectures in sports law at Queen's University Belfast

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