Confederate flag no longer an issue for Cork, getting players from a variety of backgrounds to play GAA is the challenge

Confederate flag no longer an issue for Cork, getting players from a variety of backgrounds to play GAA is the challenge
Chiedozie Ogbene, now a professional soccer player, then with Nemo Rangers, takes on Dylan Kirstein, Ballincollig. Picture. Jim Coughlan.

SPORT should be the ultimate leveller when it comes to race.

It doesn't always work that way of course. Supporters at games around the world can spew racist nonsense from the stands in the same game where they hail a winning score from a black player.

The Utah Jazz, whose current leading light is Donovan Mitchell, had to dish out a lifetime ban last year to a fan for an altercation with Russell Westbrook in a game. How can you follow an NBA team but racially abuse the black star of the opposition? 

Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality and racial inequality and was effectively banished from the NFL. It showed the balance of power in American football where the owners are white and a huge portion of the players are back.

Since the Black Lives Matters movement ignited across America, there have been a number of stories from Irish athletes who detailed the disgusting verbals fired their way. Zero tolerance is the only answer. 

That way we can educate children from the get-go about treating everyone equally on and off the pitch. Ireland is multicultural now in a way it wasn't even 20 years ago. 

There were black sporting icons of course, but very few of them on the playing fields nationwide.

Paul McGrath on a visit to Cork in 2013 with Tomás Ó Sé and Noel O'Leary.
Paul McGrath on a visit to Cork in 2013 with Tomás Ó Sé and Noel O'Leary.

When I was growing up Paul McGrath was a prince of a centre-half. The Black Pearl of Inchicore. 

The halcyon days of Irish soccer were built on his consistent excellence at the back or often in midfield under Jack Charlton. 'Oh, ah, Paul McGrath' was an unofficial national anthem. 

Indeed we were spoiled in Cork as we'd a second Paul McGrath, Bishopstown's All-Ireland winning forward.

Further afield, Michael Jordan was the global face of basketball in the 1990s, the ultimate high-flying human highlight reel. When you played NBA Jam on the Sega Megadrive, an argument would always develop about who got to use the Chicago Bulls duo of Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Jasper McElroy about to score a basket for Blue Demons in 1986.
Jasper McElroy about to score a basket for Blue Demons in 1986.

Locally, Neptune and Demons started bringing the likes of Terry Strickland, Jasper McElroy, David Beckhom and Ray Smith from the US to the northside from the early '80s. They were tremendous players and the kings of cool to an impressionable primary school kid.

Yet I lived in a very white world. There were very few from different ethnic backgrounds in my school or on my sporting teams. Until Seán Óg Ó hAilpín became a dual star in 1999, following on from Jason Sherlock with the Dubs, our GAA heroes were cut from a traditional cloth.

It's a great pity we don't see more players with roots in other countries at the elite level of hurling and football. 

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín breaks past David Burke, Galway, in the 2012 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park, his last game for the Rebels which stretched back to U14 in 1991. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín breaks past David Burke, Galway, in the 2012 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park, his last game for the Rebels which stretched back to U14 in 1991. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

Here in Cork, the likes of rugby genius Simon Zebo and soccer player Chiedozie Ogbene showed huge promise with St Michael's/Blackrock and Nemo respectively before going the professional route.

That doesn't explain why there aren't more ethnically diverse GAA players on Leeside. Clubs must ask themselves do they make enough effort to attract everyone through their doors. They should be showing young boys and girls that hurling and football are just as much fun as basketball and soccer.

The Confederate flag was waved on the Cork terraces for a long time before, the admittedly naive, Rebels realised it was more a symbol of racial oppression than a funky way of backing their county.

Board chairperson Tracey Kennedy had to reiterate when asked by The Irish Times, that it was unofficially banned in 2017:

"As far as I’m concerned, the Confederate flag is banned. Ger’s statement in 2017 was very clear when he asked our supporters not to bring the flag to our grounds, not to use the flag, so as far as I’m concerned, it is banned.

“I’m happy to make that position explicit and say it’s banned from our grounds. It has no place in our grounds or in supporting Cork teams. We’re a community association and every part of the community is welcome in the GAA.” 

It's grossly unfair to suggest that the Cork faithful were displaying right-wing tendencies when the Stars and Bars was swaying in the wind from the Hill or the Blackrock End alongside the Japanese Rising Sun and the traditional American flags or one adorned with the face of Che Guevara. 

The Confederate flag flies from the same pole as revolutionary Che Guevara at Croke Park in 2006.
The Confederate flag flies from the same pole as revolutionary Che Guevara at Croke Park in 2006.

It was of its time and it's now out of time.

It hasn't been spotted in recent seasons on the terrace and you can be sure that even if the Cork chair hadn't been questioned about it, it wouldn't have this year either. 

The various debates around race and sport are healthy and needed. 

Ireland has various issues far more important than pucking a ball around or kicking it into a net to be addressed, from Direct Provision to education. 

On a base level though, sport can promote integration and open-mindedness which means everyone can play a part.

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