Sunday 17 November 2019

GAA can't avoid ugly reality

Mick Higgins had one of those names that echo through the valleys of time, his death claiming the last surviving member of the Cavan team that played in the Polo Grounds.

It is a match that enjoys landmark prominence in the history books. Even the valiant commentary of Michael O'Hehir as he pleaded not to be disconnected from his vast audience at home in Ireland, having gone over the allotted time, enriched the day's legend.

Mick Higgins was part of that famous occasion and later went on to enjoy a successful career in coaching. Shortly before his death at 87 he revealed how he'd like to be remembered: "That I never hit anyone, I played a clean game and I was never put off."

Those words seem quaint and innocent in the modern world where everything is a means to an end that is often unsatisfactory. But they have the resonance of a wise old prophet and should be writ large and nailed permanently to the walls of every GAA clubhouse in the country.

Near the end of his days he regarded it important that they form his sporting epitaph -- not the three All-Ireland medals and the enduring fame. It was how he played the game that mattered most -- where he found the true and most valuable meaning, if you like. To have behaved without malice on a playing field: that was what he went to his grave most proud of.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to believe that his legacy might be an inspiration to all who aspire to the principle of playing the games in the right spirit -- free of cynicism and spite? Discipline has been an issue the GAA has constantly struggled to address, honestly and unequivocally; instead always leaving some loophole trailing, some condition. Asking players to play by the rules is like asking supporters to stay off the pitch. So you need deterrents with real teeth. You need tough love.

There are hurlers and footballers today at all levels who abide by the morals of Mick Higgins but there are a great many that don't and the culture feeds their habit.

Not every player can possess the dignity and restraint of Mick Higgins -- some are naturally hot-blooded -- and therefore it remains incumbent on the rules of the games and the enforcers and law-makers to ensure that the right culture pervades and the messages are getting through. Unfortunately, it appears that the GAA, after a relatively decent 2009 in terms of player behaviour, is again in danger of reverting to type and resting on its laurels. It's in danger of failing Mick Higgins and what he stood for.

Last Sunday in Portlaoise a number of inter-county players blackened the name of Kildare and Laois by engaging in a loutish punch-up that had the GAA back in the soup. There will always be rows and most games pass off peacefully, especially in light of the number of fixtures, but the words of Christy Cooney in the wake of this fracas were a little worrying. Cooney condemned the violence of course but he felt the GAA was sufficiently well equipped to deal with the challenges facing it in the months ahead.

Are they? The disciplinary reform package that failed at Congress last year by a narrow margin was due to be re-tested, or recycled with modifications, but it has been quickly buried in an unmarked grave. Cooney was not an obvious supporter of last year's package of disciplinary reform proposals, tested in the league and pre-league competitions. And he, and other leading GAA administrators, shows no great mourning for their loss.

The committee that came up with the proposals had been put in place by his predecessor Nickey Brennan. A delay in the process -- a rather needless and avoidable delay -- meant they only came to light after Brennan had left office. Now they have vanished and it is difficult to see how proposals that had such a strong backing at Congress would no longer have relevance.

Facing much opposition from prominent inter-county managers, those proposals went to Congress needing two-thirds backing and came within a few votes of being passed. That was a considerable achievement. One more county in favour would have been enough. In Munster, Cork and Kerry were in favour, but the other four went against. As did Galway.

Hurling interests swayed the mood among those county delegates who regarded the game as less needy of disciplinary reform than football. On recent seasons you could nearly argue the opposite but the vote rejected the reforms and democracy was seen to be done.

The disciplinary task force spent many hours devising a method of calculating the impact of certain cynical fouls like body checking, frontal charging and neck-high tackles and offered penalties that they felt would act as a deterrent. The decision to send off culprits and replace them with another player won widespread support. But last year when the spotlight was low, the reforms were effectively given the lethal injection. It felt like another agenda was at play. On what basis were they dropped?

After the Congress decision, those behind the reform proposals were told not to talk publicly about discipline during last year's championship. This has disquieting nuances of North Korea but they obliged. After the championship, meetings were arranged between the disciplinary task force and inter-county managers to test opinion. Most of the managers felt the reforms meant needless meddling. Not long after this the Central Council announced that they were shelved.

After the Portlaoise boxing match, Christy Cooney said he felt the current laws were adequate and the disciplinary procedures could be depended on just as much as the referees who enforce the law on the field. But what has changed to allow him the luxury of that viewpoint? If there was a change in player mindset last year it is likely to have been influenced by the publicity campaign surrounding the reforms and the greater awareness of cynical fouling among all concerned. It was in the interests of coaches and managers to ensure their players were accustomed to the new rules. That no longer applies.

The GAA has again backed down in the face of inter-county management opposition to reforms. No other explanation has been forthcoming. If there was a problem originally, which led to the disciplinary task force's creation, and it has not been dealt with, then it follows that there is still a problem there. Unless the GAA world has altered its behaviour. Portlaoise suggests otherwise and it won't be the end of it. Hoping that the summer of 2009 is a portent of better things to come is fanciful in the extreme and highly irresponsible.

"I never hit anyone," said the late and great Mick Higgins. "I played a clean game. I was never sent off." Say it loud, Mick. Say it loud and say it proud.

Eamonn Sweeney is on vacation

Sunday Independent

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