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Toxic Masculinity and Sport

Published 7 months ago 15th July 2022 by Ronan Quirke

Male sport has always had a whiff of toxic masculinity about it. Toxic in the sense that it creates cultural pressures that almost demand male participants behave in a certain way. There is a perception of manliness that is accepted and very often encouraged. It manifests itself in curious ways but often goes about unspoken. The more physical contact in a sport the more toxic the masculinity that pervades. And this unspoken cultural pressure often leads to outbreaks of violence.

If the fight at the end of normal time in the Galway Armagh game has taught us anything about toxic masculinity in the GAA, it is that nothing changes. And the reason nothing changes is because no one wants to change. Supporters want their teams to be ‘manly’ to ‘put it up to the opposition’ and ‘not to take a backward step’. That’s all well and good, I am not suggesting that such notions don’t have a place in male sport. But within reason. What happened at the end of the All Ireland Football quarter final was unreasonable.

Thirty male players leaving the field at the same time that day should have been thinking about extra time. What they might do individually and as a team to secure victory. Instead, a fight broke out and one Galway player is lucky to have his eyesight intact. There was no one player responsible. The responsibility is collective. The violence was on display for all to see, in the ground and at home on television and indeed around the world on the GAA streaming service.

Such events are not confined to the GAA. A few days after the brawl in Croke Park a Major League Baseball game in the US between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels was held up for 18 minutes after a mass brawl between players. The TV commentary on the fight wasn’t quite of the glorification kind but is wasn’t condemnatory either. It was simply announced that the benches were emptied. This is US sports parlance for the players, subs, backroom team and pretty much everyone on both sides are now engaged in a mass brawl. Much to the delight of the paying public, it has to be said, if the neanderthal cheering was anything to go by.

I have rarely seen an ice hockey game in the US or Canada that didn’t have a mass brawl at some stage over the sixty or so minutes of actual playing time. It is just taken as read that a fight will inevitably occur. Players are side-lined for a period or for the remainder of the game and the whole thing is just accepted as being part of the game. Except it isn’t part of any game nor should it be. There are no rules allowing you to punch your opponent. There are no guidelines on how best to execute a head lock. The rule book does however prohibit such behaviour. And sadly the persistence of such behaviour is because there are no consequences for breaking the rules.

In the GAA, opposing players are in close proximity to each other and are competing for the ball, for space, for scores etc. If you get one over your opponent and score, all the better, that is what the game is about. Stopping you opponent from scoring is also part of the game. And some would say that this has to be done by fair means or foul. In 2013, a tightly contested All Ireland quarter-final between Tyrone and Monaghan was on a knife edge and Monaghan’s best player, Conor McManus broke through a tackle, and was bearing down on goal. Had he scored, Monaghan would probably have won. He was rugby tackled from behind by Sean Cavanagh, a free was awarded, and Monaghan scored a point rather than a goal. Tyrone won the game. Fair means or foul?

It was a much discussed incident at the time. But it wasn’t a violent act. Cynical yes, outside the rules yes, violent no. There was nothing cynical about the fight that erupted in Croke Park two weeks ago. Some have suggested that it may have been orchestrated? I very much doubt that it was. It started with some pushing, then some grappling and then it led to an all-out brawl. And players behaved that way because that is how they were expected to behave when the pushing first started. There was an unspoken expectation on them to get stuck in. To be a man. And that behaviour is toxic.

Philly McMahon is a much decorated Dublin footballer, now retired. He was a tough player and was very able to look after himself when necessary. He spoke out about the fake outrage that followed the incident in Croke Park. And much of the outrage was fake, he argued. A little handwringing and soft words from people who should know better. And McMahon’s point was simply this, a lot of people enjoy the violence. He argued in the Irish Independent that such scenes were part of GAA culture. He quoted Sean Cavanagh ‘sometimes this is ok when it’s the playing members that are involved and it’s a show of raw emotion and it’s in the white heat of battle.’ That is to say that it is presumably ok for players to engage in violent acts on the field as long as those participating in the brawl are players only. When substitutes and non-playing members of the squad get involved then it becomes not OK?

And this is where the GAA has a blind spot. Acceptable levels of violence. If such behaviour, as was evident in Croke Park, was seen outside a fast food establishment in the small hours of Sunday morning then arrests would be made. Court appearances would follow. Because such behaviour is not acceptable in public or in private. Not anywhere unless of course it is on a GAA pitch. Then it is seen as an acceptable level of violence.

Players know that any repercussions for engaging in violent acts are likely to be mild if anything and the vast majority will receive no punishment. The referee sent two players off after the brawl. This was pure tokenism. If everyone who threw a punch were to have been sent off then the game would have had to be abandoned. And token acts of punishment, such as the sending off, feed into the mindset that violent acts most likely go unpunished.

Two Clare hurlers received a one match ban following the Munster Final against Limerick. This should have resulted in both missing the All Ireland quarter final against Wexford. But the players (through their County Board) appealed the suspensions and a procedural flaw was uncovered and so the suspensions were lifted. The players got away with it, not because they were innocent. They got away with it because of a procedural flaw. This is a mockery. As long as suspensions and punishments get overturned then players know that violent acts will most likely go unpunished.

The Armagh player involved in the eye gouging incident has received a six month ban. This means he will not be able to play for his club again this year but will be able to play for Armagh when the intercounty season resumes early in 2023. He will miss zero games for Armagh as a result of his behaviour whilst representing Armagh.

If the GAA is real about wanting to tackle the blind spot it has in relation to acceptable levels of violence then it starts at the top. The top intercounty games, beamed into our sitting rooms and ingrained in the memory of young players must be free from violence. Not free from tough physical contact. That is very much part of the game. Violence is not. If you want to start the long process of eliminating it from the game, then punishment must stick. If you get a ban then you serve your time. Certainly an appeals process is a fundamental part of any judicial system. But an appeal should only be made when a clear error has been made. Not when a procedural irregularity has been noted. I seem to recall not so long ago, a club getting a punishment overturned because the notification had not been received by them in the Irish language. Such weaselling out of a punishment illustrates how soft the GAA is on rules enforcement.
Secondly a citing commissioner, like in rugby, would also cut down on the dark arts of ‘off the ball’ incidents. If a player thought that an offence might be retrospectively punished then they might think twice about breaking the rules. Rugby has much more physical contact than Gaelic Games but such brawls are rare nowadays. The days of getting you retaliation in first are long gone. Players know that the laws of the game are applied rigorously. If a player decides to appeal a ban or a suspension and fails in his hearing, then it is likely that the initial ban will be increased. This avoids frivolous appeals in the hope of weaselling out of a punishment.

Even the media are somewhat culpable. I remember playing an underage football game in Cork many years ago. A fight broke out and we had two players sent off. The following day various papers referred to the fight in various ways, a ‘brawl’, a ‘melee’, a ‘bust-up’ was how it was described and I think the Examiner went with the word ‘shemozzle’. Hardly words of denouncement. Call it what it was, a fight. Because that is what it would be called if it occurred outside a chip shop on O’Connell Street or elsewhere, a fight.

I suppose supporters too are guilty of adding to this culture. Yelling at players to get stuck in etc. And then feigning surprise when they get really stuck in and a fight develops.
Events at the end of normal time in the All Ireland quarter final were dispiriting. Dispiriting because it took from what was a really good game of football. Dispiriting because we have not progressed on acceptable levels of violence over the decades. Dublin v Galway in 1983, Meath and Mayo in 1996, my own experience at a club underage game in the late 1980’s. Plus ca change! Nothing changes if nothing changes.

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