Unwelcome return of the long, running GAA disciplinary saga

Jamie O’Sullivan’s suspension last weekend illustrates lack of transparency in the system

With so much happening in the world of sport, news that Cork footballers wouldn’t have the services of Jamie O’Sullivan for their first championship match against Clare didn’t exactly break the sound barrier.

It was, however, the culmination of a peculiar episode in that arcane sub-genre, the GAA disciplinary mystery.

That system is much improved, but it remains prone to occasionally lengthy, meandering narratives that lack clarity and effective communication – subverting the need to ensure rules are observed, and when they’re not, that breaches are seen to be punished.

O’Sullivan’s case arose from an incident in the early minutes of the league final against Dublin, when he was seen to stick an elbow out and catch Diarmuid Connolly on the head.

No action was taken on the day, April 26th, by referee Pádraig Hughes, and it was assumed that the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) would intervene by investigating the incident, which it duly did and recommended suspension.

Word from Cork, however, was that the county had received no notice of the proposed ban and the public assumption developed that the CCCC had in fact done nothing.

What appears to have happened is that the communication was sent to an email address – according to Croke Park sources, the same one to which all such notices are sent – that is not routinely used by the county administration and where apparently it lay unread.

Ineligible

It wasn’t until a few days before the match, in order to make sure that a suspended player didn’t play while ineligible, that the decision was again communicated to the county, at which point it became news that O’Sullivan had been ruled out of the fixture with Clare.

Cork manager Brian Cuthbert sharply criticised Croke Park after the match had been comfortably won.

"Outside me being disappointed, the fact that the player only finds out on Wednesday that he's suspended . . . Jamie's preparing for a Munster championship game and then all of a sudden we're notified that he's suspended, six or seven weeks after the incident took place?

“I think for the sake of the player, I don’t think that’s good enough. Everybody in Cork is doing their best to move forward, to do all we can do, and to get a call from Croke Park on a Wednesday – ‘Oh, Jamie O’Sullivan is suspended’ – that is not good enough.”

The puzzling aspect of this is that whereas Cuthbert’s reaction is understandable in the circumstances, it’s not really possible under rules to spring suspensions on players weeks after the relevant incident.

Such matters have to be processed and there is even provision in the rule book for players who feel that they might be under investigation – and the incident in question was well publicised – to seek clarification from the CCCC.

The issue centres on whether the CCCC erred significantly in the email address it used to communicate the matter, or whether Cork were at fault for not checking properly.

It would be unusual, were the former the case, that the county wouldn't have challenged – in all likelihood, successfully – the suspension on procedural grounds all the way up to the Disputes Resolution Authority if necessary, given that in emergencies, the relevant bodies will meet to consider matters of urgency.

Extremes

An underlying problem in all of this is the extremes to which the relevant authorities have to go to keep disciplinary deliberations under wraps. The current disciplinary system was introduced in 2007 and the Disputes Resolution Authority two years previously.

Since then disciplinary matters have stabilised in that the decisions of the Central Hearings Committee aren't challenged that often and there has been a complete slowdown of earlier rushes to the Disputes Resolution Authority so that optimistic claimants could try their luck.

The one major issue outstanding has been the length of time it has taken to process disciplinary issues and the lack of transparency. Shortly after the establishment of the current system, eight years ago, it was argued – coincidentally by Cork – that it was unfair on those involved for the recommendations of the CCCC to be made public.

The argument was made that players who opt to look for a hearing should have their case heard from the beginning and not in the context of a CCCC recommendation.

This was part of a trend that has seen legal precepts imported into the association and parallels drawn with the criminal justice system despite the official guide being a voluntary code of conduct for members of a sports organisation.

Most of these concerns about prejudicing hearings are only of relevance to jury trials in criminal prosecutions. Individuals affected by CCCC proposals and who opt for a hearing will go before an experienced Central Hearings Committee, not 12 randomly chosen jurors.

Secondly, the identity of the individual is hardly a secret given that, for starters, many of the incidents have already been seen on television and the official guide prescribes punishments for all infractions. So how would any Central Hearings Committee member be prejudiced?

Instead we get long-running sagas where constant speculation about misbehaviour or its being ignored is not good for the GAA’s image.

smoran@irishtimes.com