If rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen, and football a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, Michael Bergin asks what is the GAA to be?
Sport is an inherently passionate affair, right? The fans, who travel the length and breadth of the country in support of their beloved Junior B club, the coaches, who take hours out of their weeks to train children who scarcely know how to tie their bootlaces, and the players, who often devote more time to their games than work, school, or relationships. All indubitably animated by passion. And rightly so.
However, this passion is not an unmitigated good. Sometimes, a little misplaced passion is just what it takes to turn an innocent championship encounter into a veritable brawl.
Which is exactly what happened on Saturday last in Parnell Park, after Oulart-the-Ballagh of Wexford, and Naomh Barróg of Dublin’s quarter-final clash spiraled into a full-blown riot, involving fans and players alike. Footage from the incident has gone predictably viral, apparently showing one spectator in particular using a hurl to swing at those sitting around them.
Such behaviour in any other context would warrant harsh punishment
Such behaviour is obviously reprehensible, indeed, more than that, in most cases it is criminal. Attacking fellow spectators with a hurl, due to a fight breaking out on the pitch has absolutely no justification. However, this is not the first such incident recorded at a GAA match, and it is certain not to be the last.
Last summer, fans and commentators alike were repulsed to see eyes being gouged during a senior inter-county football match between Galway and Armagh. Such behaviour in any other context would warrant harsh punishment, yet our tolerance for brutality and intimidation when it comes to the GAA seems to be rather flexible.
Looking across to the UK, oftentimes we feel safe in the knowledge that sports-wise, we behave ourselves, at least better than the generic English “football hooligan” stereotype that seems so prevalent there. A comforting myth this may be, but we can also take it for granted that had a large-scale fan brawl erupted at a premier league match, swift action would be taken not just by the FA, but by the police. Over here? Well, the record is a little more spotty.
Perhaps it isn’t that we have a perfectly blissful sporting culture here, but that we’re more accepting of sporting violence? Obviously, to suggest that GAA culture is more violent than English football hooliganism is ridiculous. But the point remains that we can’t necessarily moralise on English football culture, when mass brawls such as the incidents in Parnell Park are allowed to happen here.
A general distaste for the referee is a common theme in both the GAA and football. However, this dissatisfaction can often manifest itself in other forms, aside from the standard refrain that “the ref’s a bollocks”.
we can’t necessarily moralise on English football culture, when mass brawls such as the incidents in Parnell Park are allowed to happen here.
There have been many cases in GAA history of referees being physically assaulted in the course of games. Despite the seriousness of such incidents, these are not treated necessarily as the assaults that they are, but as humorous anecdotes to assert a certain player’s hardiness. Such attitudes are grossly outdated, and undermine the serious and indispensable role that referees play in the maintenance of our national games.
This culture is not limited to refereeing, however, but encouraged at a young level in athletes. Players are told to shorten bigger opponents “with the hurl”, are cheered on when they level a rival, and are told embellished tales of coaches’ own feats from their playing days. This engenders a sense that to play well in a match is to batter and bruise an opponent, just as much as it is about outscoring them.
The attitudes that playing to injure others is somewhat acceptable must go
Unfortunately, this does seem to be an issue that is particularly prevalent within the GAA. Think of the crackdown that would have occurred had such scenes erupted at a League of Ireland match, or god forbid, a rugby match.
Yet when it comes to our national games, it seems that allowances are given for less than sporting behaviour. If rugby is a game for hooligans, played by gentlemen, and football is a game for gentlemen, played by hooligans, what is the GAA to be? The answer is entirely in our hands.
Going forward, there has to be major reform of the ways in which the GAA presents itself in communities. The attitudes that playing to injure others is somewhat acceptable must go, particularly in an age where players at the highest levels of the game are increasingly representing professional athletes. Coaches are valued volunteers, and their contributions are indispensable to the fabric of many communities. However, educating coaches on the right sorts of sporting behaviour to encourage is critical if we are to save the face of our national games.
Respect for referees should be heavily emphasised, and this must begin on the sidelines
Furthermore, if we are to make our games more inclusive, the value of good refereeing needs to be more widely appreciated. Respect for referees should be heavily emphasised, and this must begin on the sidelines. If fans are willing to abuse referees, as well as coaches, then is it any wonder that children grow up believing it to be acceptable to do so?
Finally, if we are to accurately combat the worryingly rising number of major incidents breaking out at GAA matches, it is incumbent on all of us as fans to remember that these games, even at the highest level, are simply games, and amateur ones at that. There is nothing on the line but pride. Unfortunately, that seems at present to be all that it takes.
The GAA is a cornerstone of Irish life, and it contributes far more to Irish culture than can be quantified. However, part of protecting an organisation as important as this lies in saving it from falling into disrepute. Further incidents such as those seen at Parnell Park will do just that. It is our responsibility to stop that from happening. In order for that to happen, we will have to take off our rose-tinted glasses, and judge our association for what it is, as opposed to what we wish it to be.