GAA need to move fast and hard against racist abuse

Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 00:00

ON GAELIC GAMES:Jason Sherlock has been an interesting voice on the issue of racism within the GAA. As a teenage supernova he was an obvious target for those coarsened sensibilities that effortlessly devise ways of upsetting players on the field. He acknowledges he would be better able to deal with it now than he was back then, but that’s life.

For all the stories of what befell the Dublin forward in his senior career, one that sticks out concerns his playing days as a youngster in Ballyhea, Co Cork, where he used to stay with his uncle during summer holidays.

During one match, his uncle Eddie recounted in Green Fields by Tom Humphries, the 14-year-old Sherlock was being subject to niggling, racist verbal abuse. Unsurprisingly he became distracted and lost his temper, lashing out to the extent it was decided to get him off the field quickly.

His uncle, torn between anger and heartache at what was happening, recounted some years later with almost tangible remorse how in the heat of the moment he had smacked his nephew when he was leaving the field.

Sherlock sat on the line, crying uncontrollably, a child brought to this extreme of distress and isolation by being subjected to the most callous and cruel form of abuse.

“Verbals”, as it is euphemistically known, is a constant pollutant in sport, not just Gaelic games. The view that it is just part of the much-admired process of “getting an edge” is sometimes used to explain away the toxicity of using people’s personal circumstances to wound and provoke them on the field of play.

Jeering opponents

The question sometimes gets asked: why is racist abuse worse than all the other forms that poison Gaelic games – a selection of which includes jeering opponents because of troubled marriages, sexual orientation and alleged infidelities of girlfriends?

Sherlock addressed this question in yesterday’s Daily Star: “My late father was from Hong Kong and I understand that I look different to most Irish people. When I was growing up, Ireland wasn’t as multicultural and I suffered a lot more racism when I was younger.

“It is humiliating when it happens, as there’s nothing you can do about how you look or your background.”

You can argue there’s equally little anyone can do about having found themselves in personal or financial difficulties so what’s the difference?

The difference is that only on the playing field in the company of a certain type of “sportsman” will these problems be used against you. Otherwise people are largely sympathetic and would regard reference to such difficulties in public to be bad manners.

When it comes to racism, unfortunately, the world outside of the pitch will always emit signals, however low-frequency, that to be different is to be of less worth.

Think of a 14-year old in a strange situation – not Cork but a world that however welcoming is full of people to whom he is aware he looks different – reduced to tears because his distinctiveness has been used against him.

What “edge” could possibly be worth that turmoil and personal devastation?

Here’s another and more welcome difference: increasingly, players are not content to let “what happens on the field stay on the field”.

Aaron Cunningham, whose dad Joey was one of the first black intercounty players and who is apparently the latest high-profile target of what he rightly termed a “disgusting” practice, came out angrily after Sunday’s Ulster club final against Kilcoo and bluntly alleged he had variously been called: “the n word” and “Paki”.

Lee Chin, the Wexford dual player of Malaysian extraction, also went public after being racially abused in a club match against Duffry Rovers, which earned two players eight-week suspensions.

“I’ve been putting up with this kind of abuse for my entire life,” he said. “Now at this stage, it feels like it is getting a bit more personal. It’s becoming more of an issue for me, and it’s not just me having to put up with this.

“I’ve been chatting with one of my soccer managers in Wexford. One of his under-age players was abused two years ago and the guy that abused him got a six-month ban and a red card in that game too. Handing out a yellow card and a two-month ban is too lenient in my opinion.”

His club Sarsfields will table a motion to next year’s annual congress to make racist abuse a red-card offence.

No one is likely to argue with that or with a minimum suspension of six months, as in soccer. Ideally, the GAA’s Central Council should co-sponsor the motion.

The problem as things stand is Gaelic games’ orthodox paired marking system frequently makes the target of verbal abuse also its exclusive audience. Chin was in a way fortunate to be able to secure vindication for what he had to endure.

As of now it’s not clear what headway the Ulster Council – despite its admirably swift response – can make in investigating the case when it could end up as one person’s word against another.

If there is substance to the Cunningham’s allegations – and for most, his reaction on the field and demeanour afterwards do promote that likelihood – a simple public admission, statement of regret and acceptance of punishment by those involved would do more than serve justice in the immediate instance.

Such a response would be a strikingly redemptive act: the GAA’s own miracle at Christmas.

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