Verbal abuse, and not just racism a problem for the GAA…

In our latest Blog Post, Pat O’Toole  talks about racism and the need to restore respect to the core of our games.

Wexford GAA has found itself in the eye of a storm since the incident where Lee Chin was abused came to light. We have had another incident confirmed since, involving a match official. I’m aware we all need to be careful in anything I say on this most delicate of subjects, but it’s too important to ignore.

The key issue is respect. When we abuse another person, and we’ve all done it, we let ourselves down. Unfortunately, abusive language is all too common in Irish society. I’m not talking about our tendency to swear- that’s a different matter entirely. Neither would I be advocating a world of utter political correctness, where the moral police invade every exchange, where banter is prohibited.

However, it’s clear that a line has to be drawn somewhere, especially in sporting situations. It’s also clear to me that the line has been crossed if abuse involves reference to race or colour. I think that the way the recent abusive incidents have been handled indicates that the county board share that view. I applaud them for their decisive handling of the situation.

The balance of commentary by national media might have been summarised by Michael Foley’s piece on the back page of the Sunday Times’ sports section. In the main section of the same paper, Brenda Power criticised the length of sentence. Personally, I would not be in favour of draconian sentences. This problem is, I fear, petty widespread. Imposing long suspensions would mean that should a player be abused, they would be aware of the severe consequences of reporting the incident. It would put them in a more difficult position, raising the stakes and the pressure on people, particularly younger players, to a level that might prove counterproductive.

We need to restore better levels of behaviour and a better atmosphere to our playing fields. Legitimate aggression does not have to be snarling or vicious. I understand referees have the option of issuing a red card for abusive behaviour. I feel the option of being able to award a 21 yard free in hurling, or 14 yard free in football, would be a weapon that could hurt a team, turning their ire on the abusive team-mate, and would be more likely to be used. It could also be used repeatedly in a single match if required. The message would get through quickly enough.

I am disappointed these incidents occurred in our own county. I’m realistic enough to be aware that they reflect a more general malaise, and there will be more. Practically every club in Wexford has players of mixed race, or children of foreign nationals who have chosen to build lives for themselves in Ireland. What could be more Irish than encouraging children to play our national games? Every club in Wexford also contains members of the travelling community. Let’s not kid ourselves; we all know that terms of abuse are flung at them as well.

However, the “clean-up campaign needs to be about more than racial abuse. We need to restore the spirit of Cuchulainn. By that I mean respect for the games themselves amongst players and supporters; to each other and to officials. I would like, as a starting point, to see Wexford restore the noble tradition of standing in your position, beside your opponent, for the national anthem. Shake hands and get stuck into one another for an hour or seventy minutes. Players can have the huddle before taking their places, nothing would be lost.

If any of you are still reading, and happen to mentor youngsters, we all need to understand that, for good or ill, Wexford GAA will be under scrutiny for the foreseeable future. For their own sake, players need to be reminded to respect their opponents, no one wants to see any young person branded a bigot or suspended for the summer. For myself, I know that on Sunday, I’ll be giving an extra loud cheer for Lee Chin every time he is involved against Dublin. After all, he’s one of ours, as is every boy or girl who puts a club or county jersey on, regardless of race, creed, colour, body shape, or ability level. Let’s not forget the last one, I nearly did. Can anything be more shattering for a child than to hear someone, often form their own club, tell them they’re useless, that they’re no good? By that yardstick how many of us have never been guilty of abuse?

Opinions of blog contributors are not necessarily those of Wexford GAA.