ON the ‘Six One News’ last Thursday, the second lead story was about an incident at an U17 match in Roscommon where a referee was assaulted and hospitalised.
The news segment was sandwiched in between stories about the energy crisis and an investigation into a tragedy where three teenagers were crushed to death outside a disco three years ago, which underlined just how serious the incident was.
Shortly afterwards, there was also an in-depth discussion on the topic on ‘The Last Word’ on Today FM, while it was also the station’s second lead story on the news directly after the show.
And yet, despite it being so serious to merit such a profile on the national airwaves, this was old news too because of the frequency of such incidents over the years on GAA fields.
Not every altercation leads to a referee being physically assaulted so badly that he or she requires hospital treatment.
A recent study Dr Noel Brick, a sports psychologist at Ulster University, titled 'The Impact of Verbal & Physical Abuse on Distress, Mental Health, & Intentions to Quit in Sports Officials', outlined just how bad the situation is. Brick and three colleagues sent surveys to over 1,500 GAA referees around the country between February and May of last year and got responses from 438 of them.
Their research found that 94.26 percent of those referees had experienced verbal abuse at some stage in their careers. As for incidents of physical abuse, that number was 23.04 percent. The figure was a disgrace but it didn’t really shock anyone.
Why? Because the GAA community tolerates too much, especially abuse of referees and match officials, balking at heavy penalties, looking for excuses and seeking mitigation when the focus should be at the complete opposite end of the scale where the primary focus should be on accountability and the proper sanctions.
Not enough is being done to alter the culture. Initially, there will always be the early outrage, where decisive action will be promised but rarely followed through on to the desired level to act as a sufficient deterrent.
The notion that the latest episode was “an isolated incident” amongst thousands of club games each year is absolutely defenceless – because it’s still one too many.
It’s absolutely unacceptable to say that stuff happens “in the heat of championship”. That attitude, and a tolerance of that attitude, is why so many of these incidents keep happening.
The only way to deal with such a rotten culture is to root it out with the heaviest sanctions possible – assaulting a referee should result in a minimum five-year ban from the GAA, and possibly even a lifetime ban. That may seem an excessively harsh punishment but it would make someone think twice before they approach a referee on the pitch again.
The GAA have to set those rules in stone and close all the loopholes which exist around avoiding, or reducing, serious sanctions. There isn’t any point in a disciplinary committee recommending serious punishments unless the county board has the courage and conviction to endorse them.
Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One on Thursday, Meath All-Ireland referee David Gough called for those tougher sanctions. “It’s a massive cultural change that has to come from the top level within the GAA,” he said.
“I know we have our, ‘Give respect, get respect’ initiative but it is just an initiative, a two-page document handed out to the clubs that asked to sign up to it. But there’s no real sanctions if people don’t adhere to the recommendations in the initiative.
There can’t be any grey areas here. Or sympathy. Because that stuff only clouds the bigger picture. An example must be set that will be followed elsewhere. The consequences for those who attack match officials must be severe.
A loud message needs to go out now and the referees around Roscommon sent out all the right signals shortly after their colleague Kevin Naughton was assaulted. Referee representatives met with county board officials on Thursday and informed them that they would not be officiating at games over the weekend. The strike action left the county board with no option but to postpone all Roscommon club games scheduled across Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
It was a positive step but another huge strand to this debate is the risk failing to properly address the issue may lead to. There is already a dearth of referees. In numerous counties, matches are repeatedly called off because of a shortage of referees.
At a recent Rebel Óg meeting in Cork, it was outlined how they were short 60 referees and they asked every club to produce a new referee. Yet unless the culture changes, who is going to step forward?
Clubs must also take greater responsibility on this issue too, with a zero-tolerance approach insisted upon from the top down. Managers and coaches largely set the tone but if players, managers, coaches or backroom members, even supporters, are verbally abusing referees in an aggressive manner, club officials should insist that internal sanctions will apply to them.
Not every club will be that brave but culture is a collective responsibility. And that’s the kind of attitude required to cure one of the GAA’s great cultural ills.