O’Sullivan’s doping ban shows how hard it is to make GAA sanctions stick

Kerry footballer owned up straight away to minor offence, but appeals delayed the case

Kerry footballer Brendan O’Sullivan: The tangled machinations of the GAA’s disciplinary system are labyrinthine enough at the best of times. Add in lawyers and Sport Ireland and doping and the weeds get thicker with every step. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Kerry footballer Brendan O’Sullivan: The tangled machinations of the GAA’s disciplinary system are labyrinthine enough at the best of times. Add in lawyers and Sport Ireland and doping and the weeds get thicker with every step. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

 

The fractured nature of Brendan O’Sullivan’s suspension only serves to show how difficult it is to make any sanction stick in the GAA. The Kerry player admitted up-front that he had committed an offence, having tested positive for the stimulant methylhexaneamine after last year’s football league final against Dublin. But his suspension was served in two separate spells – the first from May 13th to July 28th last year, the second from February 26th to May 6th this year.

The reason for the delay – and the secrecy that went along with it – is simple enough. Once lawyers are involved and due process has to be maintained, not only does everything slow to a crawl but the possibility of risk to a player’s reputation causes everyone to shut up shop.

Despite admitting his infraction, O’Sullivan appealed the proposed sanction to three different bodies and that process got dragged out. At the heart of his appeal was his contention that he had inadvertently taken methylhexaneamine in a contaminated product. Sport Ireland accepted this explanation and ruled that he bore no significant fault or negligence.

O’Sullivan had already served the first 11 weeks of his provisional ban by the time this was established and it was on this basis that the ban was lifted, pending further appeals. It is extremely rare for this to happen and the fact that it did in this case is an indicator of how convinced Sport Ireland were of O’Sullivan’s bona fides.

Product contamination

They accepted early on that this was a case of product contamination. Had they suspected it was anything more serious, the suspension wouldn’t have been lifted. If, for instance, it was a case of taking medication without reading the label, it wouldn’t have been lifted. Or if, as was the case with the Monaghan player Thomas Connolly, it was a case of taking pills from a someone who wasn’t a medical practitioner or involved in any way with the county’s backroom team, the suspension wouldn’t have been lifted.

But because O’Sullivan’s explanation of product contamination was accepted, his provisional suspension was lifted on July 28th. He was, as a result, available to Kerry for their All-Ireland quarter-final against Clare on July 31st and the semi-final against Dublin on August 28th, but he wasn’t included in the panel on either occasion.

Having missed the first two rounds of the Kerry county championship during his initial suspension, O’Sullivan lined out for South Kerry in their defeat to Dingle in the Kerry quarter-final on October 1st. All the while, O’Sullivan’s various appeals against the severity of his ban was moving through the required stages.

Sport Ireland initially suggested a seven-month ban. O’Sullivan declined to accept this so Sport Ireland referred the case to the GAA’s Anti-Doping Committee on January 5th, 2017. The GAA suggested a six-month ban in February, which O’Sullivan appealed in March. By now the case was in the hands of a third body, the Irish Sport Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel, who handed down a 21-week ban, 11 of which had already been served.

Straightforward

There is an irony here in that the only part of the case that was in any way straightforward was whether or not Brendan O’Sullivan committed and owned up to a doping offence. That he did – and did so readily – ought to have made the punishment part of the process relatively simple.

But his and his legal advisors’ refusal to accept either Sport Ireland’s original sanction or the GAA’s subsequent one was what dragged the whole thing out. The tangled machinations of the GAA’s disciplinary system are labyrinthine enough at the best of times. Add in lawyers and Sport Ireland and doping and the weeds get thicker with every step.

As for the secrecy around it all, it’s worth pointing out that until the reasoned judgement is published in a few weeks, the case hasn’t actually come to a conclusion. Had either the GAA or Sport Ireland given up O’Sullivan’s name at any point in the process, they would have been pilloried for doing so.

Terrible precedent

That said, doping bans served without public knowledge is a terrible precedent to set in any sport. The whole point of doping sanctions is to protect the sport and its players. O’Sullivan’s status as an amateur athlete is completely irrelevant here – professional sports like golf hand down their doping sanctions in private too and it does them no favours at all. For what it’s worth, sources within the GAA were adamant on Monday that there are no other secret cases pending.

You might even have a certain sympathy for the association here, except for the fact that it has never handled this area particularly well. The GAA has always come across as fulfilling its anti-doping duties at the point of a bayonet. It hasn’t done a good enough job of educating its members on the dangers, the pitfalls and the very basic fact that GAA players aren’t the world’s only amateur sportspeople.

When you add that culture to the other great GAA badge of honour – refusal to accept punishment until the appeals process is exhausted – a case like this was always possible.

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