Subscriber OnlyCulture

Debate over 16-man Kilmacud is about more than a trophy. The future of moral reasoning is at stake

Unthinkable: Stand-off over ‘fairness’ is emblematic of many disputes in society today

16th man Kilmacud

You may think the brouhaha over the All-Ireland club football final, in which Kilmacud Crokes had 16 men on the pitch for the dying moments, is a sporting storm in a teacup, relevant only to the clubs involved. But that’s where you’d be wrong.

Whether you think the GAA’s Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) was right to order a replay speaks to something essential about your moral reasoning. More than that it illuminates a crucial fault line in moral philosophy upon which the future of our civilisation depends.

It takes a little time to reach this conclusion but we can signpost our journey with four observations. These are illuminated with the help of John William Devine, an expert in sports ethics who grew up in Dundrum, Dublin and is now based at Swansea University.

1 There is more than one type of unfairness


At face value the answer to the Crokes conundrum is simple: consult the rule book. Rule 6.44 refers to a team having more than 15 players on the pitch, with three penalties available: a rematch, a fine or forfeit.

“Formal fairness” means ensuring “the rules are applied impartially and equally to all participants”, says Devine, who trained as a philosopher and a barrister – and is also a keen tennis player.

“But there are other kids of fairness,” he says, including “fairness in the background conditions of performance ... Some people talk of Crokes being a super-club and having access to the best training and coaching facilities compared to Glen.”

While “we have a high tolerance” for such “structural unfairness”, it sometimes gets mixed up with rule-keeping “under the umbrella of fairness”, Devine says.

Here is a case in point: had plucky underdogs Glen won the game in identical circumstances, with 16 players on the pitch, would there have been the same clamour for a replay?

On the basis of “formal fairness”, and the schedule of penalties available, Devine endorses the CCCC’s view that a replay is the best option compared to forfeit or a fine. But this highlights another kind of fairness: how fair is the ultimate punishment? “What does rankle with me a bit is, if there was a refereeing error that had the same consequence in the final two minutes, there wouldn’t be cause for a replay.”

2 Fairness is not the only value in sport, or life

“Fairness routinely comes into conflict with other sporting values,” Devine notes. Take inclusion: a junior GAA coach can select the best 15 players to line out every week, or else can rotate the squad to promote wider recreational engagement.

Or take aesthetics. In soccer a referee who blows the whistle for every infringement ruins the operatic drama of the beautiful game.

“Sometimes it is right to compromise the value of fairness so that we can advance other sporting values such as excellence, inclusion, safety, aesthetics, or even enjoyment,” says Devine. “While we can strive to make sport fairer, it is neither possible nor desirable to make it perfectly fair.”

3 Technology is no guarantor of fairness and may be making sport worse

Technology is increasingly being used in sport with the aim of increasing the accuracy of results. It is also changing the fabric of sports in selective and unpredictable ways.

We act upon incidents that are measurable or recordable but how many infringements during a game go unnoticed by technology?

Deployment of technology “diminishes the fan experience”, says Devine. VAR (video assistant referee), for example, “tempers spontaneous joy or anguish”. How much technology to use “comes down to our priorities – what we want our sport to be”, he adds.

4. Insisting on fairness sidelines the role of virtue

Until now we have been looking at the Crokes affair through the conventional prism of rules and fairness. This is the way we tend to conduct moral reasoning since the Enlightenment.

The rationalist movement of the 17th and 18th centuries gave us a new template for deciding moral questions. Out went the ancient approach to morality that rooted ethical solutions in human character and virtue. In came a legalistic, or managerial, approach that says the answer to every moral quandary lies in the application of some rule or formula. Typically, we reach for either rights-based language or utilitarianism – calculating maximum benefit in any situation – as the default method of dispute resolution.

But narrowing moral debate to rights and utility closes off a radical alternative, which is to draw from that older tradition of virtue.

“It struck me as interesting as how few people thought Crokes should offer a replay,” says Devine.

“It seems to me Crokes have an interest in winning in a way that’s not tainted ... not having an asterisk [in the record books] saying ‘that was the one where they had the 16th man on at a crucial moment’.”

Another option would be for Crokes to propose sharing the trophy with Glen. For Crokes to do either of these, however, they would need to demonstrate a kind of virtue by sacrificing their own interests for a greater good.

This isn’t to lay a guilt-trip on Kilmacud but merely to highlight how unusual it is today to see moral disputes being discussed, or settled, through the language of virtue. Shifting to a virtue perspective means placing morality in the context of stories to be interpreted rather than puzzles to be solved.

Flipping the focus on to Glen, one could highlight the virtues of honesty (how much difference did the 16th man really make?) and equanimity. The latter is a virtue not commonly discussed today but the Bible is full of stories promoting composure in the face of hardship. Again, not to lay a guilt-trip on one team but what does it say about our society that a bunch of grown men can’t suck up a bit of unfairness?

Virtue rescuing was on show at the Olympics last year when high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim asked for a gold medal each rather than jumping off against one other. Their co-operation harked back to a Corinthian spirit once synonymous with the sporting ideal. Its rarity today should make us pause for thought.

“One thing I often wonder about is the extent to which the gambling industry has a role here in reducing competition to a test of athletic excellence,” says Devine.

“Something sportsmanship is incompatible with that because an exercise in sportsmanship means we end up, in a way, with the wrong result. If someone stops in a race to help an injured opponent and they are overtaken it compromises the competition as a test of athletic superiority.”

The broader point is that virtue has been sidelined in moral debate in a way that diminishes our collective humanity. The argument was powerfully made in philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue, which is more prescient with each passing year.

MacIntyre argues that unless we reincorporate virtue in our moral thinking we are left with “interminable” moral disagreements. The Crokes affair would seem to bear out this theory. Increasingly, public debate is people shouting “it’s not fair” across a chasm.

So viewed, the sporting stand-off is emblematic of a million disputes, from bickering within families to online shouting matches about politics and social justice.

While fairness has its place, our obsession with this ideal today at the expense of all else means turning to virtue – be that civility, generosity or forgiveness – is countercultural. Yet virtue has an empowering quality. It allows you take ownership of a situation. It allows you to imagine the ball is in your court, even if some legal or moral authority says otherwise. It allows you to write your own ending.