If your average GAA player had the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde, then there wouldn’t be much of a problem.
Your average GAA field would be a forum for exquisite conversation, high-minded rhetoric and delightful repartee.
Unfortunately your average GAA player isn’t quite in Oscar’s class. And your average GAA field is a forum for the kind of talk usually heard in a kebab shop at three in the morning.
Indeed, if the same verbals were actually delivered in said takeaway at said hour, there’d be a mill followed in short order by a couple of squad cars.
In the days when mills were plentiful on GAA pitches, there wasn’t as much trash-talking because why would you bother goading someone with words when you could break his jaw with a box?
They still have a long way to go, but the official attitude to thuggery is a lot more penal these days. By cleaning up its act, however, the GAA is now dealing with the law of unintended consequences.
Players by and large are no longer able to assault opponents scot-free. So they’ve resorted to more subversive strategies. The physical brutality has gone underground and resurfaced in the form of verbal malevolence. Hostility has become a more intimate transaction. It needs to be discreet, lest an umpire, linesman or camera is watching. So fellas get bitten rather than punched, insulted rather than assaulted.
It’s still an improvement. Most players would rather hear something nasty in their ear than be left on the ground looking for their teeth. They would prefer a vicious comment than to be out of work for six weeks, sucking their dinner through a straw.
Mind you, neither alternative is particularly edifying. But the psychological warfare has become so commonplace, you’d expect that any player with an ounce of cop-on would know better than to take any heed of it. He will know that it’s part of the plan. He will know this because his own team will be making similar plans.
It has become such a predictable effort at undermining discipline and eroding concentration, you’d imagine any player should see it coming a mile away. I mean, it just can’t be very effective if a fella has been learning his lines all week, having actually had them written down for him if he’s not the brightest, and been told to study them like it was homework from school. Then, like a bad actor, he regurgitates them to his direct opponent at the first opportunity. It seems obvious that the thing to do is laugh in the face of this slow-witted dunce — and then agree with every taunt he’s just uttered.
Admittedly, it’s easier said than done in certain cases. Wexford’s Lee Chin, among others, is a mixed-race player who by his own testimony has had to endure racist abuse all his life on the sports field. This, clearly, is utterly disgraceful.
Monaghan’s Drew Wylie, a Protestant, has repeatedly endured bigoted comments on GAA pitches. Last January a Cavan player was sent off and later banned for two games having mouthed sectarian abuse at Wylie during a McKenna Cup match. The Cavan player subsequently made a personal apology to him.
The referee in this case had heard the comments and showed admirable conviction in sending off the player.
Joe McQuillan received some flak for not addressing the plague of trash-talk that was visibly happening all over the field last Sunday in Ballybofey.
But it’s one thing seeing a player’s lips moving, it’s another thing hearing what sort of nonsense he’s talking. That’s the first problem. The mouth almighty who’s dishing it out isn’t using a microphone. His verbal taunting is simply not going to be audible to a match official, unless he’s stupid enough to unload it in their vicinity.
A second and broader issue is the matter of free speech. A referee, for example, can hardly send off a player for calling someone a bollocks. Indeed, players are known to call their own team-mates such things — and worse.
There’s a wide spectrum of verbal abuse that is taken for granted in society. It is often quite comical when the timing is right and the words are aptly chosen. We’re fairly good at it in Ireland; in fact we can be ruthless with a put-down. This kind of verbal gunslinging is still widely enjoyed in this country. The downside is that it has left plenty of people scarred over the years too. What is considered standard slagging here is often hurtful to the person on the receiving end.
But it’s part of the national culture and therefore part of the GAA culture too. So when it comes to verbal abuse, Croke Park simply cannot legislate for it all, and match officials cannot be expected to control it all either.
There is a bottom line however. Racial and religious minorities need to be aggressively protected. And players with personal problems or family traumas should be minded too, wherever possible. This isn’t a matter of sportsmanship; it’s basic decency.
The one body that might be able to make a difference here is the Gaelic Players’ Association. It is their members, after all, who are both giving and receiving the abuse. The GPA has the skills and the authority to attempt some meaningful strategy on this issue.
But in general, and for better or for worse, we will always in this country have the bitter word.
Sunday Indo Sport