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Comment: GAA must end violence or be left with a lawless game

By Declan Bogue

Let's get the hypocrisy out of the way first, shall we?

If you find yourself defending the GAA in the middle of this debate over on-pitch violence, what is your point, generally and specifically?

If you belong to the 'storm in a teacup' school of thought, perhaps you'd like to list all the glorious benefits of participating in such a fight.

Should you choose to launch a defence along the lines that it goes on in other sports and is not reported on, then you've already lost. This defence is also a first cousin of pointing the finger at media outlets and saying they only cover Gaelic games when there is a row. Ultimately, none of that matters.

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Finally, there will be many that feel the reputation of the GAA is taking too much damage and that's where a peculiar blind loyalty kicks in. For many in Ulster, they may feel a need to defend the GAA at all costs because, for the same grouping, they have invested much of their identity in it so they feel any criticism of the Association is a personal attack on them.

What should be placed front and centre of this issue is the themes of crime and punishment and our attitudes towards the scales of justice.

I'm going to dispense with my sanctimony, but only for two minutes.

Back in 2010, I was managing an Under-21 team in a county Championship. We were winning the semi-final well when a flare-up occurred at the far end of the field. One of our players punched a member of the opposition and was as a result handed a red card. And with that came a one-game suspension.

The player was the captain of our team and had already played senior Ulster Championship football for his county. His availability for the final had a huge bearing on our chances. I sought a hearing.

As luck would have it, no less than former GAA President Peter Quinn was the chairman of the Hearings Committee. He listened impatiently for me to finish my spiel and then filleted the argument. The suspension would stand. In my own mind, I was entirely justified. I still felt like a 'players' man'.

I can see now that I was wrong, but then I am no longer in the team bubble. The most famous example of a man within the team bubble doing the right thing was Waterford hurler John Mullane accepting his suspension after being sent off in a classic against Cork in 2004.

"What I did to Brian Murphy, I should have got jail (time)," he said.

"You do the crime, you do the time. I'm a GAA man and I just felt at the time for what I was after doing, I wouldn't have felt right with myself taking the field against Kilkenny."

Fourteen years later, the trend still hasn't caught on.

You don't care about law and order unless it benefits you.

It's in that environment that the Tyrone and Armagh county boards can feel justified in trying to overturn some of the suspensions incurred from their Under-20 match last summer that ended in a disgraceful brawl. The really messed up part of it is that the county boards would have been savaged by their own people if they weren't seen to pull a few strokes.

It's why a spectator can be caught on camera, like a few weeks ago after a club game in Derry, striking a referee. The county board proposed a sanction on the individual but in the meantime the club has chosen not to accept it.

If nobody accepts punishment, then we have a lawless game. Twenty years ago, the act of kicking somebody on the ground would have marked a player out for years of shame. Nowadays, that kind of ultra-violence is unfortunately the new normal, and many young men within teams don't have the ability to resist it.

In trying to guard against my squeamish side, I sought the opinions of former players Enda McGinley, Marty McGrath and Stevie McDonnell for yesterday's newspaper. Three players who were renowned as warriors on the field and not liable to take a backward step.

But all of them to a man were appalled that they, along with many others, end up with their WhatsApp inboxes filling up by the end of a weekend with clips of violent scenes on GAA fields.

"Sure it used to happen years ago, what's the big deal?" Well, a lot of things were widespread years ago. Slavery. Scurvy. Child cruelty. Human beings are meant to evolve.

If none of this convinces you that the GAA doesn't have a problem with violence right now, I return to the words of McGinley, a clinical specialist physio who works in the trauma unit of Craigavon Hospital.

We were talking about the possibility of a one-punch fatality in these circumstances when he wondered aloud: "Not only that, but what if you put somebody into a coma? Leave somebody brain-damaged? Take somebody's sight?

"You see plenty of people worse off in hospital who are left… I have seen them with head injuries up in hospital and these are normal people, the same as you and me, and you see them then in the hospital with a bad brain injury. What a sentence for the family and everything."

Maybe you're still okay with it. But heaven help your wit.

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