Saturday 21 April 2018

What became of respect, discipline and honour?

Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly takes his place on the substitutes bench after being replaced late in the game
Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly takes his place on the substitutes bench after being replaced late in the game
John Greene

John Greene

"I'm sure this goes against everything you've been taught, but right and wrong do exist. Just because you don't know what the right answer is - maybe there's even no way you could know what the right answer is - doesn't make your answer right or even okay. It's much simpler than that. It's just plain wrong." - Dr Gregory House (from an episode of House)

It's time to face up to the truth about the Diarmuid Connolly Affair. Perhaps it's unfair on Diarmuid Connolly to call it that - in much the same way as calling the agreement which did so much to destroy physical activity in schools the Croke Park Agreement is unfair.

Let's not call it the Diarmuid Connolly Affair. Let's give it its rightful name: the Truth About Ireland Affair.

Because the truth about Ireland is that there is no such thing as responsibility. Nobody is responsible for anything bad that happens, for anything that goes wrong, for any cock-up - monumental or otherwise. (The exception to the rule, of course, is when anything goes right, although then you can get in line behind the politicians.)

Gaelic football and hurling are our national sports. A friend said last week that Connolly being cleared at the eleventh hour to play in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo could be viewed as the perfect expression of that. After all, what better articulation of our national disposition could you get than the man who is generally regarded as the best footballer in the country, playing for the team generally thought of as the best in the country, representing the county which is the wealthiest in the country, getting off scot-free having committed a blatant act of wrongdoing and been caught red-handed?

Diarmuid Connolly is GAA royalty, and we have a tradition of embracing some of our peculiar notions on Irish royalty figures.

So let's park all this talk about the GAA's disciplinary system not being fit for purpose and look at the culture that it grew out of. Nothing reflects our capacity to blur lines of authority better than the activities of the GAA - both on and off the pitch. This is a truth which has been universally understood within the organisation for a long time. This is not necessarily a bad thing - in fact, mostly good comes out of it, like in the way it knits communities of all shapes and sizes together. But there is bad too. There is violence, there is sharp practice, there is cheating. And when someone is caught, there is the campaign to get them off. This is the national psyche at work - the good, the bad and the ugly of it.

The culture of tolerance is all-pervasive. It's what brings you the kind of statements so common in Irish sport, and in the GAA in particular. Top of the list might be: He's not that kind of player. (Although, at the risk of being unkind, not something even the diehard apologists could ever say about Connolly.) Or: I know it was a red card but it was still harsh.

There was a time in this country when the greatest power wielded over its citizens was the power of God. That doesn't work so well anymore, so now power is wielded through Legal Advice. If you can get good Legal Advice - and if you have the money to get great Legal Advice from a great (and feared) Legal Advisor - you will go a long way. You will also survive a lot of wrongdoing. Legal Advisors are the new parish priests.

Dublin presumably had legal advice that Connolly's dismissal could be overturned, especially given that he had been down this road before in 2011 and succeeded. Or maybe Dublin didn't even need to spend great fortunes getting legal advice on this one - anyone could have sidled up from the street to a Dublin County Board official and simply said, 'Sure it's worth chancin'. They'll probably let him off.'

In the All-Ireland quarter-final between Mayo and Donegal, Michael Murphy grabbed Kevin Keane in the closing moments of the game. Keane hit out with his hand and gave the Donegal man a good old-fashioned slap in the face, the sort you don't really see any more given we've gone all macho with full-blown punches and the like. Having sought the input of the umpire who was nearest the incident - in fact it happened right in front of him - referee David Gough showed a red card to Keane.

The GAA rulebook lists as a Category 3 offence the following: 'To strike or to attempt to strike an opponent with arm, elbow, hand or knee.'

Gough's umpire saw Keane strike with the hand. It was hardly a deathly blow, but that's not the point. The rulebook doesn't allow for degrees of force in that way, only penalising the action, and in this instance the action was clear. We can't be sure but Gough may even have seen the strike himself and was simply seeking confirmation from his umpire. The television cameras also picked it up.

Punishment for this offence is clearly spelled out in the rulebook. There is no room for ambiguity. Firstly, the referee must 'Order Offender Off'. Which is what Gough did. The player is then suspended for a minimum of one match "in the same Code and at the same Level, applicable to the next game in the same Competition, even if that game occurs in the following year." Keane was cleared to play the next game.

As was Lee Keegan in another high-profile case in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. So what we feel about Dublin and Connolly applies just as much in these cases, and others.

Standards of refereeing in the GAA, despite official protests to the contrary, are not good enough, but when you have repeated instances of referees making correct decisions and then having those decisions overturned behind closed doors you have an even bigger problem than just a shortage of good referees. Now you have a lack of authority.

Diarmuid Connolly punched Lee Keegan on the ground. He was seen to punch him, and he was sent off for doing so. It was the correct decision by referee Joe McQuillan. The television cameras clearly showed the referee had not made a mistake. And yet Connolly was cleared.

How could this happen? We know the culture that this is embedded in, but we do not yet know the specifics of how he was cleared. That is expected to be published by the DRA in the next week or so. Yet, in a way, the exact grounds for clearing Connolly hardly matter. What matters is that he was cleared at all.

There have been arguments that the law of the land must apply and that a player in a sporting arena must be entitled to the same due process and presumption of innocence that a defendant in court is entitled to. This is nonsense. It is the rhetoric of the modern world, the language of our age's great dissemblers and bureaucrats. If the law of the land were to apply to the letter in sport, then combative sport as we know it would cease to exist. It is an accepted principle that there are exceptions, including in sport - otherwise we would have chaos. The terms and conditions of sporting encounters would be radically altered and, worse still, diluted.

In November 2014, a high school football game between Locust Grove High School and Oklahoma City's Frederick Douglass High School ended in controversy. With just over a minute left in the championship quarter-final, a touchdown which would have put Frederick Douglass High School in the lead was disallowed after a penalty flag was thrown by a referee. It was generally agreed that it was a wrong call, but the game continued and Locust Grove High School won by one point.

The losers went to court in an effort to force the game to be replayed - or at least its final minute or so - but District Judge Bernard Jones ruled against them. "Courts ought not meddle in these activities or others, especially when the parties have agreed to be bound by and have availed themselves to the governance of these activities' associations," he said.

The judge added: "This slippery slope of solving athletic contests in court instead of on campus will inevitably usher in a new era of robed referees and meritless litigation due to disagreement with or disdain for decisions of gaming officials."

If Connolly were to fall on top of another man on the street outside a pub punching him, and his actions were caught on CCTV, and he was arrested and charged, and there were over one million witnesses, what would his chances of acquittal be in a court of law be?

And if it was a case of self-defence - another argument that has been put forward - then chances are both would be in the dock. Maybe Keegan should have had a case to answer also for his part in the incident, even if that should not have any part to play in Connolly's situation.

Or what about mitigation? Again, a viewing of the whole game and the amount of unnecessary incidents Connolly got involved in would count against him.

So, do we really want to go down this route in sport? History has shown us there will only be one winner in this scenario: the legal profession.

One valid interpretation of the DRA's decision could be that he was not technically cleared of any wrongdoing, only that he had been unfairly treated. Which again points to a certain culture at play in this country.

Keane, Keegan, Connolly and others did what they did but suffered no consequences for their actions. In a sporting arena, they broke the rules of engagement but were not prepared to accept any consequence for their actions. This comes to the core of what responsibility is all about. Writer Arnold Bennett said you are not in charge of the universe, you are in charge of yourself. Could they not - as John Mullane famously, and to his credit, did - accept their punishment? This is not an act of sacrifice, rather it is one which shows an understanding of the bigger picture, and the value of humility even in these crass times. It goes to the heart of the matter: that we are responsible for our actions.

Maybe that's unfair. Maybe we shouldn't expect so much of amateur players. That, they might argue, is the system. Even if club officials all over the country will this weekend and most other weekends of the year tell players who have been sent off to take their punishment - including those who strongly feel they have been sent off in the wrong.

Maybe we should look at Dublin County Board's role. And that of Mayo County Board, and the others who have decided that they can pull the house down. Maybe we should ask them what they think their role is in promoting fair play, respect, honour and good discipline? For these are the principles they are expected to uphold as keepers of the flame on their home turf. That, perhaps they can argue, is the system. As Dublin manager Jim Gavin said of Connolly's reprieve after last week's win: "We just engaged with the process, it's there for us, it's there for any team to use and that's what we did." He added: "We took advice from the administrators of the Dublin County Board and they supported us all the way."

As for the GAA, what of its role? Can it just take these blows and not hit back? Can it not show that law and order - at least in the context of its rules, and more importantly, of the spirit of its rules - has to mean something or there is no meaning? Or can they simply shrug shoulders and sigh, it's the system.

A lot of people who give a lot of time to the GAA at different levels told me last week they were disgusted at this latest reprieve. Earlier this year a girl on a team that I help out with got a red card in a semi-final (and yes I thought it was harsh but we did not appeal) and so missed the final through suspension, the biggest game she would ever have been involved in. She couldn't bear to come to the game because she felt she had let her friends and team-mates down, but those friends and team-mates persuaded her to be there on the day. The game ended in a draw and she was back to play a part on the winning team in the replay.

So don't - as Dublin attempted to do - say Diarmuid Connolly's case was just part of the system. It was not. It was part of the culture. If nothing else, it's time we were at least honourable about our lack of honour.

Eamonn Sweeney is on leave this week

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