GAA right to protect players during ongoing doping cases

Drug testing is necessary in Gaelic games but speculation about players is unfair

A year ago this week, then Gaelic Players Association CEO Dessie Farrell sounded a warning on the issue of doping in the GAA.

“We’d be naïve not to realise that there is out there a culture in sport – a gym-based, body building culture where individuals are taking substances to develop themselves physically and many athletes are training in the same gyms alongside individuals who may well be taking these substances.

“We’d be naïve to think that in these environments there aren’t discussions about techniques, approaches, supplement use and performance-enhancing drugs like steroids. We’d also be naïve to think that issues won’t develop for our athletes in the future. We’re not trying to scare-monger or raise alarms but we are saying we need to be careful, vigilant and have a mature conversation about this and if any players want to talk they should reach out.”

The whole issue came back into focus at the weekend with the news that Kerry footballer Brendan O’Sullivan had already served a suspension for an inadvertent violation – the stimulant methylhexaneamine (MHA) was detected in what was accepted as a contaminated product – more than a year previously.

It’s not actually as simple as that because the process isn’t entirely finished yet. Although the suspension was communicated to the player by the Irish Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel (IADDP), that body has yet to issue its written decision, which is expected this week.

There will be an opportunity for the decision to be challenged – by the GAA, O'Sullivan himself, Sport Ireland or even by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) although few expect that to happen.

On one level the GAA is happy enough that in the 15 years of testing procedures only three players have had adverse outcomes and one, Aidan O’Mahony from Kerry, was cleared because he had a valid TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) for an asthma inhaler and a long and documented history of the condition.

Monaghan's Thomas Connolly was suspended for two years in 2015 after testing positive for banned substance stanozolol, a violation deemed to be "not intentional" and which he said occurred because of a labelling error.

O’Sullivan’s current case has proved controversial because of the length of time involved and the effectiveness with which the whole thing was kept under wraps.

Public funding

These incidents invariably encourage arguments that amateurs should not be put through these procedures. It's not a compelling case given the pervasiveness of the problem and is sometimes presented as being an exploitation of players to protect public funding for both the GAA and the GPA.

Whereas it is true that originally there was more stick than carrot in the government approach – the €75,000,000 that was conjured out thin air on the eve of annual congress 16 years ago in order to subsidise the ongoing redevelopment of Croke Park, was the subject of a letter from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern to GAA president Seán McCague on 6th April 2001.

Point 13 of the letter specified: “… The commitments in this letter are conditional on the GAA complying with the government’s anti-doping in sport programme.”

The GPA allocation of player grants from government has similarly been linked to the embrace of testing.

Yet by this stage it would be hard to find someone in a position of authority who didn’t believe that the doping protocols are much more about protecting players from unregulated products and potentially hazardous substances in a world accurately portrayed by Farrell.

Criticism of the inordinate delay in the emergence of the case has to be tempered by the acknowledgement that no doping case is meant to go public until it is concluded. That is fair to the athletes concerned but it rarely plays out that way. The usual sequence is leaked news of the charge and a very public wait for the outcome of the hearing, which creates the same stress as for anyone accused of any wrongdoing in any forum.

Doping offences are strict liability so intention doesn’t really come into the verdict although it can as in this case affect the punishment.

Failed test

O’Sullivan may be lucky that news of his failed test emerged only after the fact and when his suspension had been served. But at the moment everyone is shooting in the dark as regards details because the ‘reasoned decision’ of the IADDP hasn’t been released nor has the finding of the GAA’s Anti-Doping Hearing Committee.

What’s left is speculation about what actually happened, which is unfair on the player who has admitted the charge but denied intent and yet the precise circumstances of the violation, which can only be assumed will back up his story given that three different tribunals have judged the breach to be at the very low end of the spectrum – each hearing having reduced his suspension – are not yet in the public domain.

There has been concern about the length of time the process took, especially the gap between the suspension of the ban 11 weeks into its operation at the end of last July (recognition that the eventual punishment might be considerably shorter than the original seven months) and the referral of the matter to the GAA’s Anti-Doping Hearing Committee in January of this year.

By the standards of the GAA’s disciplinary tribunals that appears like a lot of foot-dragging but, when asked by this newspaper, a Sport Ireland spokesperson said that in a wider anti-doping context, a delay of five months wouldn’t be considered excessive.

“It does happen. There’s no defined time frame once the process starts and this length of time wouldn’t be unheard of by any means.”

Overall though it’s hard to blame the GAA for protecting players until decisions are finalised.