Ex-intercounty referee supports introduction of lifetime bans for abusing officials

Wexford county board seeking to remove upper limit of 96-week ban

Brian Crowe believes issuing life bans to anybody abusing GAA match officials would end the cycle whereby perpetrators believe their actions have little repercussions.

Former intercounty referee Crowe, who was the man in the middle for the 2006 All-Ireland final between Kerry and Mayo, supports Wexford County Board’s stance calling for the maximum 96-weeks suspension to be discontinued.

“I believe that handing down one life ban might be all that is required, it could exactly be what is needed here. People might listen up then,” says Crowe.

“The message that would be sent out by somebody receiving a lifetime ban, that would be huge, it would be carried in all the news bulletins, it would be a discussion topic across the country. It would get the message out there that this kind of carry-on will no longer be tolerated. I stand fully behind what Wexford are proposing on this matter.”

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Wexford chairman Micheál Martin hopes the glare of negative publicity in recent weeks might ultimately prove to be a turning point for the GAA.

“There was general consensus from those at our meeting on Tuesday night, from those at the coal face, that they hoped this would be a watershed moment where finally it was being properly dealt with and addressed,” says Martin.

Last Sunday, Wexford joined a growing list of counties caught up in controversies surrounding the abuse of match officials by non-players when referee Michael Lannigan and one of his umpires were confronted after a junior football championship match between St Joseph’s and Our Lady’s Island.

Against that backdrop, and the fear of a strike by referees as happened in Roscommon, Wexford called a meeting of referees for Tuesday night.

With the county under the spotlight, Wexford decided against the popular ostrich approach of many GAA units and instead increased the voltage beaming from the lamp.

At what was described as a robust meeting, following which referees agreed not to down whistles, a number of actions were agreed – including a proposal to remove the maximum penalty for anybody guilty of verbally or physically abusing a match official, which would allow for lifetime bans; insisting all clubs must hold self-evaluation workshops over the next seven days; and publishing the disciplinary sanctions imposed on players and clubs.

“It is not that we are proposing lifetime bans, rather it is that as an association we don’t tie our hands with a maximum limits,” adds Martin.

“We don’t believe there should be a maximum limit. Why tie your hands? Instead, give the committee the option of proposing longer sanctions if they deem it appropriate, whether that is a lifetime ban or not, let them have that option.”

Wexford now intend to make a proposal to the next meeting of Central Council that a Special Congress be called to facilitate these motions. Not only are they asking that the 96-week maximum term of suspension be removed, they also want the GAA to commence a review to simplify the convoluted and loophole-friendly disciplinary system. Furthermore, Wexford want all pitches to have a designated area in which mentors must remain in during games.

Crowe, who also took charge of All-Ireland club finals in 2003 and 2005, was one of the most respected referees in the country during his time on the intercounty panel. After stepping down from the top level he got involved in the assessment of referees in Cavan.

“It is not such a big issue at intercounty matches because those games are generally so well run, plenty of stewards and players and mentors realise there are a lot of eyes on then,” adds Crowe.

“But the mindset is different when it comes to club games, it’s not so much officials and players, but supporters and others who seem to think they can turn up at a game and say or do whatever they want. The present systems allows that kind of attitude to prevail. I think a life ban would sort a lot of this out.”

Roscommon disciplinary officials proposed a 96-week ban on the mentor involved in the incident during a minor match that left referee Kevin Naughton needing hospital attention. A Hearing was sought but the suspension was upheld, so the matter might now be heading towards an appeal.

Wexford’s initiative on the issue is to be welcomed, but Martin accepts the preferable narrative would be if such a stance was not required.

“Perhaps it is showing leadership to a degree, but the first part of that is acknowledging that you have a problem. It is something we had included in our strategic plan, but this not just an issue in Wexford, every sideline around the country has similar problems. It is a societal issue.”

The Wexford county board on Wednesday circulated a digital presentation document to all clubs, with an online self-evaluation form which is to be completed and returned by next Thursday morning.

It requires that all clubs hold a workshop for team mentors from under-11 sides to adult and conduct an appraisal of their conduct towards match officials. Any club which does not complete the workshop and return the document by next week’s deadline will have their fixtures postponed until they have done so.

The possibility of referees in Wexford engaging in a protest strike this weekend did come up during Tuesday night’s meeting, but ultimately they agreed to officiate.

“There was a discussion in around that, it was put on the table in the context of showing solidarity and support for their colleague,” admits Martin.

“I suppose there was a consensus that there are better ways to show support. I’m not sure cancelling one weekend of games brings about meaningful change. Yes it’s a statement, but what matters is what can be done to address this issue in the longer term.”

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times