If Covid-shaming becomes the norm fewer players will come forward
GAA needs to step up and support clubs, rather than blaming house parties
Old Leighlin GAC in Carlow had to shut down all club activities after one of its playing members tested positive for Covid-19. File photograph: Inpho
John Hayden wasn’t far off turning in for the night when the call came. As chairman of Old Leighlin GAC in Carlow, it wouldn’t have been unheard of to have to answer the phone at 10.30 at night. Whoever was ringing that late probably wasn’t bringing him good news but that goes with the territory too.
On the other end of the line was the brother of one of the footballers in the club. The player had woken up on Wednesday morning feeling under the weather and they’d been in Kilkenny Hospital for the day and, long story short, he had tested positive for Covid-19. He was okay, well enough to be sent home anyway. And now he was in his room, self-isolating, with a 14-day quarantine ahead of him at least.
“We had discussed the possibility of this happening somewhere along the way obviously,” Hayden says now. “You know that even though you’ve gone through all the protocols and you’ve done everything the guidelines tell you to do, there’s still a chance of somebody getting it in the course of their normal day. But when it happens, you’re still a bit shocked.”
In a Covid-19 world, it is inevitable that this scenario will be repeated in clubs in every county over the coming weeks. The GAA guidelines don’t stipulate that a club needs to shut down all activities but that has been the norm so far. Clubs are doing so partly out of an abundance of caution and partly out of an urge to be seen to do the right thing.
The upshot, however, is that as soon as a club shuts down operations - as Old Leighlin did, as 10 clubs in Derry did, as three clubs in west Cork did, as clubs in Tyrone, Down, Donegal and Armagh did just this week - as soon as it happens, it’s as if they’re hanging out a black flag for their whole community. In doing the right thing, GAA clubs are bringing a stigma upon themselves that is entirely undeserved.
“Covid-19 doesn’t exist in GAA clubs,” says Dave O’Neill, chairman of Kilkenny club Graigue-Ballycallan. “Covid-19 doesn’t exist in supermarkets. Covid-19 doesn’t exist on building sites. Covid-19 exists in the community.
“We cannot victimise and we cannot scapegoat young people. If we try to scapegoat young people and start making out that house parties are the cause of the virus spreading in the community, we will drive it underground. Young people will bite their lip and not come forward to say that they have it for fear that the finger of suspicion will be pointed at them.”
Problem is, those suspicions already exist. They are entirely real. John Hayden got that phone call late on the night of July 17th and throughout the week that followed, he found his community at the centre of a whispering campaign that rippled out far beyond the three small villages of Leighlinbridge, Old Leighlin and Ballinabranna that feed into the club.
“The rumour mill started pretty quickly. Any statement that we put out, we had to be very, very careful with the wording. When you’re in the middle of it, there’s a lot of paranoia and anxiety. The questions were coming at us straight away: ‘Did ye do something wrong?’ And of course it was a question we were asking ourselves but what can you say? We followed everything we could possibly do and it just so happened that there was a positive test locally.
Through it all, the club had nobody higher up in the GAA to turn to
“If this particular guy was just a person in the community, you’d never have heard a word about the club. But because we are a GAA club and because we had been in contact with quite a few teams, the net got wider and misinformation started to spread like wildfire. That’s still going on.
“His name came out very quickly on social media. People were posting his movements, whether they were true or not - he was supposed to have been seen having a pizza out with a gang of lads or he was in a petrol station or shop. There were people in our club fighting with lads in clubs four counties away, defending the way we had handled ourselves.”
Here’s the thing. If you’re looking for the gold standard in how a club should handle an outbreak, Old Leighlin are it. As soon as he finished his phone call with the player’s brother that night, Hayden immediately drew up a list of people and organisations that needed to be contacted first thing the following morning.
Old Leighlin have a men’s team, a junior team, a women’s team and they feed into a parish team for underage football and all levels of hurling. On the weekend before the positive test, there had been three challenge matches at various levels against clubs in Carlow and Laois. The player in question had played some minutes in all three games and gone on to take a full part in training on Tuesday night. It wasn’t until Wednesday morning that he felt any symptoms.
By breakfast time on Thursday, every player in the club and the chairmen of all three opposition clubs had been informed. Every Old Leighlin player was told to restrict their movements, to inform their employers and to get onto their GP to request that they be sent for a test. Within 24 hours, virtually every person in the club who had been involved in the matches or Tuesday night training had been down to Nowlan Park for a test. By Saturday, all results had come back and all were negative for Covid.
Old Leighlin did everything correctly. They went above and beyond the GAA guidelines and squashed any chance of transmission immediately. Hayden was glued to his phone for a week, waiting on every last test result to come back before he could put out a statement saying the club was open for business again. But still, all the while, the curtains were twitching in the background.
“You’re wasting your breath in a lot of cases,” Hayden says. “It’s not worth the effort. But you’re hearing loads of stuff back that just isn’t true. It went around that he was a mentor on a few underage teams and that would have implications in terms of some other clubs that we would have played but it wasn’t the case.
“And then even just locally, when it came to who was a close contact, everyone seemed to be an expert on what a close contact is and who would be considered one. That started to stir up more stuff and it meant that for a few days, everyone was looking over their shoulder at anyone who was a member of our club.
“People were going, ‘Are you one of them? What are you doing outside your door? What are doing going into the local shop?’ That kind of stuff. We’re only a very small village so you can imagine what that could do. Now, the locals were great and we were able to get on top of things quickly and they appreciated that. But it’s just the unknown. And the fear.”
Through it all, the club had nobody higher up in the GAA to turn to. Not at county board level and not in Croke Park. Their existence as a GAA club was the sole reason anyone heard about the positive test outside the man’s family and close contacts. Yet beyond two-page guide downloadable from the GAA website, there was nowhere for Hayden to go at a time when he felt his club was under attack.
If anything, in fact, the words of GAA president John Horan that week made things worse. Within 24 hours of Old Leighlin shutting down operations, Horan was on Morning Ireland saying that players, “have got to make a clear decision. Either you party or you play sport. Sport and partying are not going to work at the moment because it’s partying that has brought many of these challenges to our doors as regards to the virus.”
The Old Leighlin player hadn’t been to a party but without Horan making that clear, how were people to know? They were one of a tiny handful of clubs known to have a positive test in their ranks and here was the GAA’s top man saying that house parties were to blame for many of the cases. Loose talk like that was always going allow people to put two and two together and if you were the five in the middle of it, you were in a lonely place.
“We were left hanging a bit,” says Hayden. “That did annoy me. There was no point of contact, nobody to help with putting together a statement, nobody even to bounce things off. There were so many different opinions flying around and it would have been helpful to have somebody to call. Even just somebody to come out and say, ‘Look, this club did nothing wrong.’”
Hayden is happy to say the Old Leighlin player is recovering well and will be welcomed back when he feels he’s over it. He says that if there’s another case, they will do exactly the same thing, even if it happens in the middle of championship. He hopes that all clubs would do the same.
Which is all very well, except you wouldn’t wish the week Old Leighlin had on anybody. If Covid-shaming becomes the norm, if the stigma hangs around, if the president keeps blaming house parties, there’s going to be less and less incentive for players to come forward. The worst thing that could happen is somebody hiding a positive test having seen how a club is treated.
The GAA has been a steady hand so far but it feels like the trickiest weeks lie ahead. More and more, it feels like two pages on the website isn’t going to cut it.