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26 Sept 2022

The Man Behind the Wire: GAA sea change needed towards referees

The Man Behind the Wire: Sea change of attitude required in GAA world towards referees

Marius Stones showing Alan McNamee a red card in last year's drawn SFC final.

AN absolute and complete sea change of attitude is required in the GAA world towards referees and hopefully last week's shocking events in Roscommon will serve as a wake up call across the board and in all counties.

The footage of a referee ending up spreadeagled on the ground after a man came out on the field from the sideline in Roscommon went all over the country last week and got unsurprising national attention.

Roscommon referees took drastic action by withdrawing their services for games last weekend, resulting in a full round of football championship fixtures being cancelled. On the surface, this was a questionable decision as you were punishing clubs and players who had absolutely nothing to do with the incident.

In another way, however, it was both understandable and correct – their anger and frustration at what happened is legitimate but beyond that, it really helped bring the whole issue of referees and respect and humanity towards them to a head across the board.

That is no bad thing and as an organisation, the GAA needs to have a serious look at itself and the way it treats referees.

The incident in Roscommon is at the very extreme end of the spectrum and thankfully it is very rare – any assault of a referee should transcend the GAA disciplinary mechanism and is a matter for An Garda Siochana. And if a referee is assaulted and opts against reporting it to the Gardai, then they are not really helping themselves.

That, however, is not the issue here. It is the way people behave towards them, the abuse that is directed towards them – and with the advent of social media, people have a new forum to make themselves heard and seen, to voice fierce criticism, laced with personal comments.

Most referees have a way of insulating themselves from this – the simple remedy is not to look at comments but sometimes it is hard to avoid it. There is a natural instinct to look at what people are saying about you and it also has an impact on close family and friends.

That is the world we live in now and people's coping mechanisms for such things will dictate how healthy they are mentally and their happiness levels but as an organisation, the GAA community needs to call out such absuse.

They need to make abuse of any kind an absolute no go zone at matches. Players, mentors and supporters should be reported and dealt with according to the letter of the law.

Enforcement, however, is only one element. It needs to become socially unacceptable for people to abuse referees in any form. At matches, club officials, fellow supporters should immediately call people to task for abusing referees – make it as unacceptable as it is to abuse people in broad daylight in the car park outside your local Church or in the middle of a town.

There has long been an attitude in the GAA and the wider world of competitive field games that certain things are okay within the confines of a pitch that would not be accepted in any other forum. This ranges from spectators getting involved in general melees to verbal abuse of the most disgusting kind.

You can make some sort of excuses for players going toe to toe or reacting in the spur of the moment – obviously there are certain types of assaults that cross all lines and deserve to be dealt with externally but gaelic games are physical contact sports, played at tremendous intensity and with great drive and passion. It is part of what makes hurling and football such compelling games and players can react out of character, on the spur of the moment.

There is a difference between having a fight on the spur of the moment – that should of course be dealt with by red cards and the culprits suspended – and malicious strokes. There are players out there who will go out to hurt a player and this is a different kettle of fish. If it is assault in Birr on a Saturday night, it is assault in O'Connor Park on a Sunday afternoon and there should be no difference – and referees, linesmen and umpires have a major role in enforcing all this.

The long held belief that what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch must be challenged by all. In fairness, discipline at games has improved dramatically in the past few decades. I am researching a history on Offaly GAA at the moment and suffice to say that what is happening now is mild compared to some of the battles from the 1970s back – some of the stories I have read, particularly from the 1920s through to the end of the 1960s, would make the hair stand up on your head, though it is worth noting that the violence generally related to players, mentors and supporters. I have come across loads of cases of referees getting fierce verbal abuse but very few of actual assaults – notwithstanding the odd report where they had to run for their own safety or be protected by others.

Refereeing is one of the most difficult jobs in the GAA. In many ways, it is tougher than playing and managing. They have huge responsibility, the rule book is a huge, complex document – there is a lot in it and it doesn't cover every situation that arises on the fields. They are refereeing games where the stakes are huge, emotions on a knife edge, tempers at boiling point. Everything is questioned, challenged and universal approval is almost impossible to achieve.

Forget about supporters, many of the players and managers have only a basic knowledge of the rules. Very few know them all and in a lot of cases, referees are challenged when they are correct.

Referees don't and can't get everything right. No more than the player missing the handy free, the defender dropping the simple ball, the manager mystifying the crowd by taking off the player playing well, they will and do mistakes. Some of these mistakes do cost teams games or have a huge bearing on a game.

Referees have to meet certain standards of competency. They have to know the rules, they have to have a decent level of fitness and they have to understand the games. No more than a player or manager, they can't be immune from questions and criticism is par for the territory. If you play on a team, manage a side, referee a match, being thick skinned is a requirement – you will have bad days and you might hear things said about your ability that are not nice.

However, the player missing the fourteen metre free to draw a county final will get plenty of consoling hugs that night; the manager making the questionable call will have plenty to back him but the referee is isolated, relying on family and close friends to lift his spirits.

Social media is a whole different ball game – it can't really be controlled and clubs can't be expected to edit the pages of their members but they can still call people out when abuse drifts into the unacceptable category: when extreme comments, wild, all embracing statements are posted.

Everyone wants free speech and debating the matches and big incidents is part of the attraction for many GAA supporters. It is an essential part of the entertainment and social media has allowed many people to engage in a manner that they simply did not have in the past. Notwithstanding the downside to this and the hairy comments that can be posted, this is also good and has a lot of benefits for people – there can be some very interesting, informative, entertaining debates on social media forums.

Supporters look at games through very rose tinted glasses – balance and fairness is often impossible to achieve through those glasses but even in cases where a referee has a bad game or makes crucial mistakes, he deserves respect and humanity. Language should be tempered, criticism properly expressed.

The County Board and clubs do have a huge role to play. Referees are assessed and graded on their performances and ones having real, verifiable nightmares won't get big games – just as there are some players out there who will never play in a senior football final, there are referees who will never take charge of a senior hurling final for the same reason: they simply aren't good enough or haven't been committed enough.

The disciplinary bodies need to be careful to back referees. Once a referee sends a player off and submits their report, they have no role in the disciplinary process and that is only right. They are not allowed comment on them and they must accept the decisions. Their decisions are occasionally overturned and red cards rescinded. In some cases, these are very right decisions and video evidence vindicates a player – recorded footage must be produced to get a red card rescinded and thankfully the day of a player receiving a haymaker and then coming in and trying to get the culprit off is gone. Witnesses can no longer be produced and that is no bad thing. However, when a player is exonerated, the miscarriage of justice must be very evident, the innocence very clear. And in Offaly, there have been some cases where this is questionable.

Obviously no one wants a player punished in the wrong, missing a big game as a result. That has also happened but when a red card is rescinded, it clearly says the referee was wrong – and getting those decisions absolutely correct is paramount to protecting referees.

Back in 2008, Offaly had its own referees' strike. It erupted after referee Mick Mahon had been hit after refereeing an U-21 hurling game in 2007. An amalgamated team were initially suspended for two years and the referees withdrew their services after that ban was lifted by the County Board in February 2008 – the board did so on the grounds that they were punishing players who weren't playing that day and it created a messy few days.

Games had to be called off for one weekend and it was only resolved after a clear the air meeting between the County Board and referees. The board defended their right to re-instate the team but admitted that a €1,000 fine was insufficient, especially as the team had been “unable” to identify who had struck the referee and he escaped justice.

Thankfully it is a long time since there has been a case of a referee being struck in Offaly, and hopefully I will never have to report on one of those again. However, there is a crisis with referees in Offaly and it is a shortage of them. The pool of hurling referees is uncomfortably tight and while there is more football ones, there is not near enough.

Recruiting new referees, making it attractive to take up the whistle is one of the big challenges facing Offaly GAA. The events in Roscommon last week, the ongoing abuse, at and outside of games, is a turn off to most people, yet referees are as essential to the games as players, managements and club officials. None can survive without the others and this is where the attitude must change.

By all means question decisions but be kind, be nice, show respect, show humanity. Thank referees for doing a job that many won't, for allowing the games to take place.

Learn from rugby and the zero tolerance attitude they show to abuse of referees. Instil the same attitude in the GAA, draw clear lines about where the boundaries are and don't allow these to be crossed.

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