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Ciarán Murphy: No GAA club will act decisively to stamp out verbal abuse of referees. It just doesn’t happen

Clubs need to lead the way in discouraging environments that permit both verbal and physical abuse

My colleague in podcasting, Ken Early of this parish, enjoys enriching me and his audience with the fruits of his hard-earned psychology degree. Such crumbs from the master’s table as we are permitted to nibble upon might include phrases like the Overton Window, moral relativism, or the broken windows theory.

The broken windows theory, as originally put forth by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling states that “visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crime.” Basically, if you don’t punish the small crimes, more serious crimes will follow.

If there’s one window broken in a derelict house, it stands to reason that the rest of the windows will soon be broken, because that one broken window signifies to the outside world that no one cares about this building, and by extension, this neighbourhood.

The Overton Window is the range of socially acceptable political views held at any one time, and if one can move the Overton Window, as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson did, you can do and say things previously thought to be beyond the pale of regular political discourse.


Moral relativism has been frequent as it pertains to the recent spate of attacks on GAA referees, some of which were deemed serious enough to require hospitalisation. “Well the rugby lads have the right idea, don’t they”, and there you go.

Much of the commentary around recent assaults on officials at GAA games has centred around punishment - what length of ban is necessary to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and what can be done to ensure that proposed bans handed down by county boards are made to stick, and actually act as the deterrent they’re supposed to be?

The urge to focus on the deterrent is only natural, and also the desire for justice to be done and to be seen to be done is an instinct we all have working away under the surface, much as we might be loath to admit it.

But if deterrents actually worked, then surely the 98-week ban handed down to a mentor in Roscommon for assaulting a referee would bring such incidents to a shuddering halt, rather than acting as a bizarre catalyst for a particularly grim couple of weeks of similar incidents? What about the Overton Window of acceptable behaviour on the sidelines at GAA games? What are the broken windows in our association that allow such acts to continue to happen?

The broken window analogy is easily drawn. No one at GAA games bats an eyelid at verbally abusing a referee. And when I say verbal abuse, let me be clear that I’m not talking about players, managers or fans questioning a decision. Anyone who’s ever attended a GAA game knows the difference between that and verbal abuse.

Players don’t show them any respect, and some of the biggest and best names in GAA management feel no compunction whatsoever in roaring abuse at them from the line during a game watched by hundreds of thousands of people on television, or lambasting them in the media after games.

The repercussions of Dr Noel Brick’s report into verbal and physical abuse suffered by GAA referees, which Seán Moran referred to in Wednesday’s paper, will continue to be felt for years. When I contacted Dr Brick after his report was released, which stated that almost a quarter of referees had been physically assaulted, his reply was illuminating on a number of levels.

I asked him just how that figure of 23.06 per cent of officials experiencing physical abuse was broken down.

“They could select as many options as relevant from 1) players, 2) team management or coaches, 3) support staff [e.g. physios], 4) club officials, 5) spectators, and 6) others. So, as the figures below will show, most match officials selected more than one option from that list.

“Verbal abuse, in order, was predominantly experienced by team management and coaches (indicated by 84.99 per cent of respondents), spectators (70.46 per cent), players (66.23 per cent) and club officials (34.14 per cent).

“Physical abuse was predominantly experienced from players (54.46 per cent), spectators (48.51 per cent), and team management and coaches (33.66 per cent).

“Most evidence suggests that physical abuse results from an escalation of verbal abuse. So, while the physical abuse figures in our study, and others like it, are shocking, we also know that tackling verbal abuse is important to help avoid that escalation.”

This is a key point which is obvious once you step back and hear it in black and white from the man who is going to drive studies in this area forward. No club in Ireland will act decisively to stamp out verbal abuse of referees. It just doesn’t happen.

So turn it back on them. Instead of punishing individuals for individual acts of violence, punish the club for allowing a culture to exist that permits verbal abuse of referees, the nigh-on inevitable gateway to physical violence.

If a senior club has appointed a coach or selector that feels it’s okay to come on to a pitch and physically interfere with a referee, spare me the cries of “it’s not right to punish the club for the actions of one man” - you put him on that sideline! Teams getting banned from championships for a season would solve the problem in double-quick time.

Not many clubs would admit that they could have done something to prevent a member from assaulting a referee, but every club can have a long, hard look at how their players, managers and supporters interact with officials.

That’s the broken window that allows a once-respectable neighbourhood to seem like a fairly dangerous place to be a referee these last few weeks.