Sunday 21 January 2018

Joe Brolly: Today's sledging is hateful and can only breed hatred - there is no redeeming feature

Current generation won't be telling sledging stories to their grandchildren

Seán Cavanagh spoke out very strongly, saying he feared that some of the stuff that was being said could be a real threat to players’ mental health
Seán Cavanagh spoke out very strongly, saying he feared that some of the stuff that was being said could be a real threat to players’ mental health

Joe Brolly

In 1992 we played Down in the Ulster semi-final. Casement Park was an amphitheatre that day. The game did not disappoint. Midway through the second half, Down full-forward Peter Withnell, a Protestant, was sent off.

Someone quipped "That'll be your last big day until the 12th." I still laugh thinking about it.

Big Peter has a place in my heart ever since he poleaxed Meath's Liam Harnan in the All-Ireland final in 1991 and revealed afterwards he didn't even know who Harnan was.

Since last weekend in Ballybofey, sledging has been presented as a relatively new phenomenon in Gaelic games, when it is nothing of the sort. Michael Duignan tells the story of his Offaly debut in the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, in 1986. Duignan was only 18 years old and was slated to mark Brendan Lynskey, a fabled hard man.

After the anthem, young Michael walked nervously over to the grizzled veteran and stretched out his hand. Lynskey glared at him curiously and said, "A mhaicín, what are you doing here? The minor match is over". A few seconds later, the ball was thrown in, at which Lynskey drove his elbow into the teenager's nose, before taking off down the field to receive the ball, leaving Duignan standing in a daze.

As the Offaly man put it, it was 'Welcome to the big time, baby.'

Wisden, cricket's bible, describes sledging as "often humorous, sometimes insulting attempt at distraction." I prefer Aussie cricketer Steve Waugh's description of it as "the practice of mental disintegration".

England's Fred Trueman was bowling during a match in the 1960s and got an edge from the batsman which went between Raman Subba Row's legs, who was fielding at slip. At the end of the over, Row ran over to Trueman and says: "Sorry Fred, I should've kept my legs closed". To which Trueman icily replied: "So should your mother". Or what about the classic exchange in an Ashes Test match between Ian Botham and Australia's Rod Marsh. Botham arrived at the wicket to bat and Marsh, the Aussie wicketkeeper, shouted, "So how's your wife and my kids?" Quick as a flash, Botham said, "The wife's fine. But the kids are retarded".

Muhammad Ali was a world-class purveyor of the sledge. In 1974, he tortured George Foreman during their title fight, grabbing his head and saying in his ear, "I thought you could hit harder than this George", and, "I'm disappointed George, very disappointed." There was a method in his madness. He wanted Big George to get so enraged he would punch himself out. Ali lay on the ropes and taunted him until the giant champion was so exhausted all he wanted to do was sleep. Ali duly obliged, stepping off the ropes in the seventh and knocking him to the canvas without the slightest resistance. Years later, Foreman, grinning broadly at the memory, said, "He foxed me that night. He foxed me alright."

Since time immemorial, corner-backs have been enquiring of the dewy-eyed young corner-forward how his mother is and whether she is "still on for tonight". I have even known one to hand a pregnancy test kit to a corner-forward and ask him to make sure his sister gets it. "If it turns blue, tell her not to bother with a DNA test, it's definitely mine."

I remember once after a championship match I played in against Armagh in Clones, looking over and seeing Kieran McGeeney slumped to his knees on the ground, his head in his hands. Our full-forward walked jauntily over to him, tousled his hair and said, "That's the fucking end of you boys". We cackled with laughter as we strolled to the sideline. Twelve months later, they were Ulster champions and the rest is history.

The problem nowadays is the increasing viciousness of the sledge. Taboo subjects are now open season. A friend of mine told me recently of the constant verbal abuse dished out to a player in his club who is of Chinese extraction. At half-time in a game, the player reported that he was being teased by his opponent. "I'll have a number 64, number 77 and a portion of egg fried rice." When he told his tormentor to wise up, he said: "Sorry about that, can I change that to a number 33, number 51, a portion of chips and a Diet Coke please."

Suicide, death, addiction, aberrant behaviour, race are now seen as fair game. Not all players do it, but they don't condemn it when a team-mate does. Kevin Cassidy tells a story in Declan Bogue's book about Martin McElhinney showing his team-mates footage of the on-field trash-talking of American footballer Brian 'Wolverine' Dawkins.

In the Denver Broncos changing room, Brian has two lockers. One for Brian. One for his alter ego Wolverine. In the hours before the game, he slowly transforms into the wolf man. He then takes the field bounding on all fours and growling. He approaches opponents to unsettle them, sledging as hard as he can. In the book, Cassidy tells the author that the Donegal squad discussed trash-talking as a group and believed in its value for getting under an opponent's skin. Individuals were duly targeted.

Separately, it is common knowledge that some horrific stuff was said to Tyrone players a few years ago about a tragic death that had strongly affected the squad.

Last Wednesday, Donegal minor manager Declan Bonner claimed that his team's captain, Micheál Carroll, was repeatedly targeted during the minor game by two Tyrone players. The subject matter? His father's death from cancer in February 2014. Is this what we are reduced to? Taunting a boy about the premature death of a man he adored? His father Francie, who played for Donegal, must be turning in his grave.

Some players on the field last Sunday were particularly vulnerable. But in this new world, prompted by social media and the virtual disappearance of private lives, all of us are open to attacks that serve no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade.

I don't know what was said in the senior game (omerta applies), but by all accounts it was very, very bad. Seán Cavanagh spoke out very strongly about this on Monday, saying he feared that some of the stuff that was being said could be a real threat to players' mental health. This is not as fanciful as it might sound. In the past, things like rehabilitation and addiction and divorce were private matters, dealt with discreetly.

Nowadays, they quickly become public knowledge through social media. In a tight-knit country like ours, it takes serious courage to come through that and then return to the public arena, to work and live amongst your peers. How much more courage does it require to come back into the ultra-competitive, dark world of inter-county championship?

The black card sanction that exists for such verbal abuse is worthy but useless, since unless each player is wired for sound, the sledging will not be heard. Unlike in the old days, where the sledging could be laughed about over a pint afterwards, even if it was years later, there is no redeeming feature in this stuff. It is hateful and can only breed hatred.

The current generation will not be telling their sledging stories to their grandchildren, or writing about them in their autobiographies. As young Micheál Carroll will tell you, they're as funny as cancer.

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