GAA Congress needs to address culture of indiscipline, not indulge it

Proposals can improve Gaelic football by no longer allowing cynicism to be an advantage


This coming weekend the GAA’s annual Congress will take place unusually early in Derry. This is partly to recognise the city’s status as City of Culture although it’s not quite clear what cultural aspect of congress makes it such a catch for the civic celebrations.

There will be though, appropriately in the circumstances, a major determination on the future culture of football when the package of measures brought forward by the Football Review Committee will be debated.

Despite the general praise for the work of the FRC and in particular the scope of its consultation, one of its key recommendations – the introduction of a black card for cynical fouling, which would require the departure of the offending footballer and his substitution by a replacement – is by no means certain of adoption.

To date four Ulster counties, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Down and Antrim, as well as Cork have come out against it. There are no major surprises in that line-up although Down wasn’t entirely expected but supporters of the reforms remain positive about the chances of their acceptance with three days to go before the vote.

It hardly feels like four years since we were at this point but indeed it is. In 2009 GAA president Liam O’Neill, then chair of the Disciplinary Task Force which proposed a number of measures, including a version of the current black card, to combat cynicism put the argument forcefully when urging support for his proposals.

“You can go back to the clubs and schools, look into the eyes of children and tell them that if they work hard and learn these skills, we will protect you. Voting against is to go back to the same children and say we took the easy way out and shirked our responsibility.”

[CROSSHEAD]Tripping opponents
[/CROSSHEAD]Answering the charge that the proposals removed physicality from the games, then Derry chair Séamus McCloy asked: “What is manly about pulling down and tripping opponents?”

As is well known the vote fell short in that 64 per cent, rather than the required 66.6, supported the motions. Given the support from the floor that day, it’s sobering to reflect that it took this long for the matter to be heard again.

There is a core issue at stake here. Are gamesmanship and tactical or cynical fouling negative elements in the game? Nearly everyone (although sometimes you can’t be sure) would say they are. The FRC consultation process, which took in the views of 4,000 people, highlighted such breaches of rule as among the top dislikes in the game. Accepting that, how do you discourage their practice?

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has put on record his unhappiness at the FRC proposals on the basis that these fouls are already adequately punished. Three times on Saturday night, players on his team were shown yellow cards for calculated fouls in the closing minutes, as they defended a one-point lead against Dublin.

They’re not unique in this but it’s inconvenient for their manager who is arguing that the existing rules constitute adequate deterrent.

Axiomatically, you can’t discourage anything unless the consequence of doing it disadvantages perpetrators more than it benefits them.

As things stand can that be said of the rules of football? Is the yellow card a serious deterrent, especially in the closing stages of a match – when there’s little time to run the risk of picking up a second?

Critically there isn’t the incremental punishment of suspension for cumulative yellow cards, which means the sanction is all but meaningless. Even if he is sent off for a second yellow, it is purely a sanction for the remainder of the match and has no further implications. If the black card proposal is draconian, are there options?

[CROSSHEAD]The sin bin
[/CROSSHEAD]There have been advocates for a version of the sin bin but it’s hard to see how that would adequately penalise the offending team. Unlike rugby, football is not a fixed position game with an offside rule and as a result making the spare player count in the space of 10 minutes would be difficult.

Even rugby, with a fully functioning sin bin, hasn’t solved all of its disciplinary problems. In fact there is an argument that the yellow card sin binning has operated to provide a line of least resistance when red cards should be issued. More surprisingly, there is evidence the sin bin actually hardly penalises the offending team at all.

The games analysis report for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, available on the IRB website, notes: “Many exaggerated claims have been made as to the points value of having an extra player on the field for 10 minutes but analysis over the years has shown that many of these claims bear little resemblance to the facts and this was confirmed in RWC 2011”.

It goes on to point out that not once did the points scored in the sin-bin period account for the difference in points between the winning and losing teams; in over 50 per cent of the occasions when a yellow card was awarded, the offending team suffered no points deficit whatsoever and that the majority of those that took a hit of more than seven points were already trailing by an average of 35.

The most enthusiastic advocates of the FRC couldn’t say for certain that the new proposals would eradicate the problem but they’d improve the current situation whereby cynicism pays.

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