Seán Moran: The decision making of voluntary referees is on trial

It has been known in previous cases for as many as 50 questions to be posed

The GAA could have done without Conor McKenna’s hearing arriving on its disciplinary desk so soon after last week’s curious decision by its Central Appeals Committee.

The Tyrone player was challenging the red card he received for “contributing to a melee” at the end of the Ulster championship match with Fermanagh. McKenna was successful before the Central Hearings Committee.

There was a slight conundrum in that two Fermanagh players, Ryan Lyons and Brandon Horan, had been shown yellow cards for involvement in the same melee and although that presented an imbalance it wasn't strictly a defence for McKenna.

To the casual viewer he had certainly “contributed to a melee” but the view appeared to be that it wasn’t a very big one – certainly in the context of the CinemaScope brawling after the Donegal-Armagh league match.


This had ended in embarrassment for the GAA last week when the CAC lifted the suspensions of the two Armagh players, Stefan Campbell and Aidan Nugent, who had appealed whereas Donegal were left looking like eejits for taking their suspensions on the chin and declining to contest them.

It might be an idea for the CCCC to take the role of referee's representative in these matters

Naturally, given that those suspensions had also been based on “contributing to a melee”, the prevailing view on Tuesday morning was that the infraction, at Category III, 5.19 of the Official Guide part 2, had been rendered a busted flush by all the successful challenges.

This counsel of despair turns out to have been premature.

Within the GAA those concerned were apparently heartened by the written decision of the Central Appeals Committee, which didn’t drive a coach-and-four through the concept of melees and contributing to them but suggested that a small amount of detail or clarification might be needed if the decision and punishment were being challenged.

It’s actually arguable whether this is the case. Rule 7.3 (aa) (vi) says that the referee’s report “shall be presumed to be correct in all factual matters and may only be rebutted where unedited video or other compelling evidence contradicts it.”

In this case the referee, Paddy Neilan of Roscommon, cited the players for "contributing to a melee". The only video evidence not alone didn't contradict his decision but if anything strongly supported it.

The appeal was granted on procedural grounds – that the referee hadn’t clarified what he had cited the players for doing and therefore compromised their ability to challenge his decision.

Yet he had specified “contributing to a melee” and it would be very hard to say that the video had contradicted this. Would it be required of any other infraction that a referee would have to go into granular detail as to what he had seen and was reacting to?


In this case, Neilan cited the players and was vindicated by the Central Hearings Committee, who backed his findings. It is strange that he was required almost to account for himself at an appeals tribunal when his report had not been nor could be rebutted.

When “contributing to a melee” was a lad – having only been recently introduced to the rule book – it ended up before the DRA (Disputes Resolution Authority, the GAA’s independent arbitration tribunal, which functions a bit like the association’s supreme court).

It was dealing with events that became known – imaginatively – as Semplegate, when Cork hurlers were suspended under the fledgling rule for brawling before the start of the 2007 championship match against Clare.

In a decision, confirming suspensions for three Cork players, the DRA accepted that the infraction was necessarily broadly based.

“In the absence of some special meaning being attributed to the expression ‘contributing to a melee’ the words must be given their ordinary meaning. Clearly therefore the offence (these days, infraction) can cover a multitude and that seems to have been the intention of the Association in enacting the new rule.”

Sufficiently reassured by the CAC’s written decision last week, the GAA issued an advisory to referees stating that “contributing to a melee” was still a viable rule for enforcement and encouraging them to provide very basic levels of detail if their decisions in this area were challenged.

The broader problem is that what should be simply the rules of engagement for participation in a voluntary activity are being subjected to the same scrutiny as the criminal law. Lawyers are being retained and hearings turned around so that the referee’s decision making virtually goes on trial.

It has been known in previous cases for as many as 50 questions to be posed to a voluntary match official with the clear intention of catching them out rather than seeking clarification of some ambiguity in their decision making.

It might be an idea for the CCCC to take the role of referee’s representative in these matters. In other words, any communication with a referee would have to be through the committee, which would also decide what was the appropriate amount of detail to be furnished.

At the launch of the GAA’s latest instalment of its strategic plan, Aontas 2026, association president Larry McCarthy identified support for and recruitment of referees as a priority.

“So, create an environment where there is respect for what they do and how they do it and also strengthening the process by which we support them as an institution . . .”

He was later asked to single out a personal priority for the plan.

“Referee investment blows my hair back” he replied, “and improving the quality of the environment in which referees operate.”

Crikey, how’s that going?