When will the GAA take the Abuse of Referees Seriously?
Back in 2010, inter county referee Willie Barrett was assaulted on the pitch by a supporter of one of the teams that he was refereeing at the time. There is nothing to be gained by naming the team as they cannot be held responsible for the actions of a lone individual. You would have liked to think that such an assault would mark a watershed for the Association. The point at which the powers that be decided that enough was enough and that such actions and just as importantly the mindset that leads to such actions would be tackled head on.
That same year, inter-county referee Seamus Roche was struck from behind after a club match in
Semple Stadium. Whilst his family watched on from the stands. In a previous incident, Roche was
also struck by a supporter and in subsequent investigations the club associated with the ‘supporter’
refused to give his name when asked. The club involved were more concerned about protecting the perpetrator that seeing justice done.
In Roscommon a few weeks ago, a mentor for an under 17 boys football team, calmly walked onto
the field, struck the referee, causing him to fall to the ground, and then calmly walked off the field.
No one approached him or remonstrated with him. It was the calm nature of his encroachment onto the field that unnerved me. A random act of violence was about to be perpetrated and the aggressor looked like he was out for a stroll.
Last week a junior football match in Wexford made headlines when a referee was assaulted. The Gardai were called and are investigating. In Kerry an underage football match had to abandoned last week when a mentor of one of the team’s needed treatment in Tralee Hospital. The game had only 10 minutes left to be played when an altercation occurred involving players. The mentor was kicked whilst on the ground. This follows on from an abandoned under 11 hurling match in Kerry earlier this month. Yes, you have read that correctly, under 11 years of age. In a posting on Twitter following the abandoned game in Kerry, one supporter, who claimed to be at the game, argued that the incident might have been avoided had the referee been stronger in his officiating.
So, if I am understanding this argument correctly, a fight breaks out at an under 15 football match and it is the referee’s fault? Twelve years after acts of violence were perpetrated against two leading referees in Tipperary and mindsets have not evolved one iota. This is neanderthal thinking.
So why does this mindset persist? It is because nothing is done, and referees receive little if any support. A referee strike in Wexford was averted this week only when it was agreed that all clubs must hold workshops for mentors from U11 to adult level before next Wednesday, October 5 and report a self-evaluation of their conduct towards match officials to the county executive by the following day. Any club that doesn’t comply will have their fixtures postponed.
Workshops for adults who mentor children? That is the answer? We need workshops to inform adults that violence is unacceptable. Grown ups need to be educated on how to behave towards referees and opposing management and opposing players. In 2022, the GAA had unearthed an educational deficit that needs to be remedied. Twelve years after the assaults mentioned above and only now, in Wexford at least, the Association is planning on running workshops. This beggars belief.
The mentor accused of assaulting the referee in Wexford has admitted his transgression but qualifies his apology thus: ‘my emotions got the better of me’. He also vehemently denies that he threw a punch or elbowed the official stating that he merely pushed him. The referee attended Wexford General Hospital that evening but even still qualifying your apology with a dismissive ‘I only pushed him’ fails to demonstrate any insight into the incident. A push is an assault on the person when it is done in a threatening manner. The fact that it was only a push in the eyes of the aggressor is not a mitigating factor. The recipient of the push might well have been fearful as to where this assault was going and when it might end. That is an aggravating factor.
Last week in Cork there was an appeals committee hearing where 16 red cards and subsequent suspensions were being appealed. Of the 16 cases, 14 were overturned. Again, this is part of the problem. A referee makes a decision, issues a red card and then his decision gets overruled at
committee level. Clearly, everyone has the right to an appeal but when frivolous appeals are successful, the autonomy and authority of the referee is undermined. Last year a well known inter county referee in Tipperary withdrew his services from adult club games because he was so incensed at the overturning of a decision he had made. A recent case in Tipperary was overturned because a referee’s report had gotten lost. You really could not make this up. No sooner than a game is ended, and the dust settled on a red card incident and clubs are planning their appeal. To get their player off, to ensure that he doesn’t miss the next game.
Players and management need to accept punishment if the mindset that perpetuates this violence is every going to stop. The appeals procedure needs to be robust and fit for purpose and populated by officials who are as motivated by stamping out violence as they are by applying fair procedure. If a club is asked to name a perpetrator and refuses to so do, then expulsion for the competition is the only answer. If the club has already exited the competition, then other forms of punishment need to be found. It seems that large fines only get reduced on appeal anyway so they in and of themselves are not a deterrent.
And that is part of the problem, there is no deterrent. Verbal abuse of referees goes unpunished. Violent acts on the field might be punished on the day but are lessened or rescinded on appeal. And violent acts against referees need to become criminal matters. If a player though he might miss out on a J1 trip to the US because of a criminal conviction he might reconsider. I say he as I am not aware of any violent acts occurring in ladies’ football or camogie, but I have heard verbal abuse, all of which emanated from male partisans.
There is a double edged sword in operation here too and that is the standard of refereeing. It isn’t great. There are some excellent referees in the county but there are some mediocre ones too. That is in no way any excuse for verbal or physical abuse. If the referee makes a mistake, accept it. No matter how much shouting and roaring, the result always stands.
If the standard of officiating was better, would there be less violent incidents? I doubt it. Seamus Roche and Willie Barret were both victims of violent assaults and both were as experienced as you could get. Both had refereed All Ireland Finals. And whilst such a malignant atmosphere pervades at club games, few will be recruited into the ranks of referees. Older, experienced referees will retire, and their corporate memory will retire with them. Younger referees will wonder why it is that they give so much of their free time and be subjected to such abuse.
This is a problem that isn’t going away, and it is an Achilles heel for the Association. There just isn’t any appetite for change when it comes to discipline in the association. The GAA get so many things right and yet this is a story that self-perpetuates year after year. So many stake holders from parents to mentors to players to referees and we cannot seem to get it right.
And it doesn’t happen to the same extent in other sports. It just doesn’t because such behaviour has ramifications. Ramifications that stick. If you look back at the Roscommon incident, the coolness, nay coldness of the manner in which the mentor walks onto the field is jarring. What happened next is almost in cold blood and cannot be explained away in the Wexford vernacular of ‘my emotions got the better of me’. I could have written this article twelve years ago and cited incidents from the 1990’s.
What seems to get lost in the fog of hysteria that surrounds such incidents is this, it is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be a pastime. Under 11 hurlers in Kerry, under 17 footballers in Roscommon, junior footballers in Wexford. All turn up for some fun. Violence comes along and no body seems to think that this is not Ok.