The former Mayo footballer John Casey has said he is “absolutely disgusted” at the level of online abuse directed at individual members of the Mayo senior squad and management in the wake of their All-Ireland senior final defeat to Tyrone. He is among a cohort of former Mayo players and supporters disturbed by the response to the team’s All-Ireland loss.
The Mayo County Board felt compelled to release a statement on Sunday evening condemning “a number of personal attacks” as “completely unnecessary and unacceptable”.
Team captain Aidan O’Shea was subject to particularly virulent online comments in the hours after the game. He also featured strongly, with manager James Horan, in a Sunday newspaper column by a former player dissecting Mayo’s perceived failures.
“I think it is absolutely disgraceful to the highest degree, and particularly on the back of the amateur sports status,” Casey said when contacted on Monday.
“What people have to put themselves through to get to that level; nobody goes out to make mistakes. I know Robbie Hennelly was in a bad way after his final nightmare a few years ago. And my feeling is that in the current climate when health and wellbeing are foremost in people’s thoughts, for a human being to have a cut at a person over a game of football is a disgrace.”
Mayo’s extraordinary run of All-Ireland final appearances – six since 2012 – has been defined by acute season-ending disappointment. But Casey, who is an RTÉ GAA analyst and writes a column for the Mayo Advertiser, believes that those responsible for the online attacks do not understand the emotional toll an All-Ireland final players take on a player.
Players do make mistakes and people are entitled to have an opinion. But are they entitled to attack a player on a social forum?
“Are you telling me those players aren’t hurt enough without having to read that bullshit?” he said in a telephone interview on Monday.
“That is the part that galls me. Those players will be in a desperate place. I have been there and I know what it feels like. It took me months and months to get over that final in 1996. You are laying blame on yourself; I have never watched the video but you get flashbacks of mistakes you made that could have altered the result.
“I think I gave a ball away before a Meath goal but I can’t remember. You feel like shit without people rubbing it in. By the grace of God there was no social media – people barely had mobile phones back then. So I just think that this ability that people now have to just pick up their phone and say: let’s go. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
When it comes to issues like Brexit, Trump or, well, Mayo football, the opinions tend to go to the extremes and there is no middle ground at all
“I could say that several Mayo players didn’t play well in the final and the management didn’t have their finest day on the line. Players do make mistakes and people are entitled to have an opinion. But are they entitled to attack a player on a social forum?”
The Mayo board yesterday declined to elaborate on the statement released on Sunday evening. However, a spokesperson stressed that no inference to the future of the current management should be taken. James Horan has a year to run on a four-year term and it has been standard practice to have a post- season review, which will take place, as normal, in the coming weeks.
But their statement reflects the increasingly personalised nature of criticism to which elite GAA players are subject.
The elevated drama behind Mayo over the past decade has contributed to heightened opinion. John Gunnigan operates and moderates the popular Mayo GAA blog. He felt the response to Saturday’s defeat was particularly toxic online.
“When it comes to issues like Brexit, Trump or, well, Mayo football, the opinions tend to go to the extremes and there is no middle ground at all. It just becomes poisonous and divisive and just very nasty. You are into the wider issue as to can social media be moderated in any sense at all? My take would be: they are not really trying.”
The Mayo fan page has developed a reputation for lively and feisty debate but Gunnigan has established it as a forum where abusive content or opinion will not be tolerated.
There is so much anger out there and people seem to feel the need to express the most hateful things. It is a modern phenomenon
“I think I have proven that you can moderate. It does take a lot of effort. But it can be done. There are two things I ask: is it fair? Is it reasonable? If not, it has not place being there.
“Obviously there was a huge volume of anger after the final. But that is just people tearing their hair out. A lot of it was unfocused. But even I find on the blog is that it is like the stages of grief. And it can go off on the usual hobby horses. Eff the county board is a quick one. Then you are into strategic reviews and all the usual hobby horses. Some of it you have to let go or you are censoring. But once it dips into abuse it is a no-no.”
The trolling of elite athletes online is a global problem but within the GAA the problem is magnified because the players are amateur. After the All-Ireland season, they return to clubs and communities. The post-match reaction raises the issue of whether the GAA has a duty of care to somehow protect or shield its players from abuse.
“It would be difficult to protect people because it is part of the modern world, “ Gunnigan says.
“There is so much anger out there and people seem to feel the need to express the most hateful things. It is a modern phenomenon. But there are new Oireachtas laws about abuse online and some people are undoubtedly committing criminal offences in what they do. But how you prosecute that is a different matter. A lot of people don’t see the distinction between criticizing the player’s performance and the individual.”
Meanwhile, the Mayo senior players will be back on the field when the club championship gets underway across the county this weekend.