Sunday 22 April 2018

Spitting, racism and sledging: GAA must tackle new scourges on game

Crossmaglen’s Aaron Cunningham has been a victim of on-field abuse
Crossmaglen’s Aaron Cunningham has been a victim of on-field abuse
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

ACCORDING to reports – none of which have been refuted – there have been three cases of players being spat at during or after football games over the last month.

In the case of Paul Galvin (playing for Finuge against Cookstown in the All-Ireland club intermediate football final in Croke Park) and Emlyn Mulligan (playing for Leitrim against Offaly in the league last Sunday), the allegations relate to spitting by opposing players, while Karl Lacey was targeted by a spectator as he left the pitch in Omagh after Donegal's defeat by Tyrone last Sunday week.

Last December, Crossmaglen's victory over Kilcoo in the Ulster club SFC final was overshadowed by the outrage felt by the Armagh champions when it was allegeded that full-forward Aaron Cunningham had been racially abused by opponents. He was also subjected to racial taunts from the terraces. Two Kilcoo players and a supporter were later suspended following an investigation.

In fairness to the Ulster Council, they acted quickly, although one of the Kilcoo players involved had his ban overturned on appeal while the other had his six-month suspension reduced to four months.

Last year, two club players were suspended in Wexford for racially abusing dual star Lee Chin.

"I've been putting up with this kind of abuse for my entire life. At this stage, it feels like it is getting a bit more personal. It's becoming more of an issue for me, and it's not just me having to put up with this," said Chin.

"There are younger people of mixed races who are coming up against this too. Some of them may just listen to some of the things being said to them and think, 'Is it worth this at all? I'm not going to bother'."

Racism offences fall under the heading of 'bringing the association into disrepute' and can involve lengthy bans. Indeed, it could extend to a life ban if a motion to Congress, on the weekend after next, is passed.

Spitting comes under a different category, slotting in alongside striking, kicking (minimal force in both cases), dangerous play, contributing to a melee and abusing a match official as an offence that carries a one-match ban.

nonsense

It means that a player can walk up to an opponent, spit directly into his face with as much force as he can muster, knowing that, even if the incident is spotted, reported and successfully prosecuted, he will miss only one game.

Frankly, that's nonsense. Striking or kicking an opponent is a serious offence but almost always happens in the heat of the moment, usually as an instinctive reaction. That's not an excuse, but it does offer some degree of mitigation.

Spitting at an opponent is altogether different. It's pre-meditated, disgusting, demeaning beyond words and calculated to provoke the target. Yet, if the enraged recipient lashes out, he faces dismissal and a one-match ban, the same punishment as the spitter. That's assuming, of course, that the latter's vile actions have been spotted by the referee. If it hasn't, the player who reacts is the only one who suffers.

As a matter of urgency, spitting has to be re-categorised as an offence for which the punishment is, at the very least, a minimum four-match ban and/or a three-month suspension.

Indeed, I would love to see the GAA's Management Committee rush through an emergency motion for Congress in nine days' time.

Okay, so technically that's not allowed under rule but, in the light of what's happened over the last few weeks, wouldn't it be nice to see formal procedures discarded in the pursuit of a system which makes it clear that on a league table of offences, spitting is the lowest of the low and won't be tolerated?

As a microcosm of the larger society, the GAA will always be open to the behavioural trends of the time, in which case some recent experiences in football offer a worrying illustration of where Irish life is headed.

Why does spitting seem to be on the increase? And is Ireland a whole lot more racist than it likes to portray itself? Are decency norms becoming irretrievably corrupted?

Naturally, there will be those who claim that highlighting the spitting, racism and trash-talk that's on the increase in football games is sensationalising a relatively small problem. That's always an easy cop-out, just as the ridiculous mantra of "what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch" is an attempt to justify anything once it happens within the white lines.

The incidents of racism and spitting that have occurred in football games in recent months present a major challenge to the GAA. Their rules and disciplinary procedures are being challenged in a manner that needs to be vigorously resisted and crushed.

It would be encouraging if support for that were forthcoming from those closely involved with players but sadly, that's not always the case. When last was a player left off a team for bad on-field behaviour? On the contrary, managers and county boards will use every available mechanism to rescue their man from the forces of discipline.

The increase in spitting and racism incidents has to be of serious concern to the GAA, but then it's not all that surprising that this unfortunate stage has been reached. 'Sledging' has been going on for a long time, remaining unchecked by referees (who must surely hear some of the remarks), team managers and county boards.

It's a "what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch" approach. That was always a spurious premise but certainly can't be tolerated now that the bullying mentality is extending its reprehensible tentacles to include racist abuse and spitting.

Hard cases reputedly don't make good law, but neither does appeasement. Treating spitting as a relatively minor offence sends out the wrong message at time when a much stronger hand is required. In fairness to the GAA, it probably never thought it would see the day when spitting would become a problem, but events over the past month suggest otherwise.

It's time to fight fire with fire on this one before these offences spread throughout the game – because if they do, it will be very difficult to rein them in.

Irish Independent

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