Link funding to ‘zero tolerance’ approach to abuse of officials and players

Oireachtas Committee hears proposals to tackle the issue at venues and online

It was a couple of weeks back that Senator Shane Cassells was asked to act as an umpire for his daughter's under-13 Gaelic football match in their native Meath. "A guy from the other club was the umpire on the other side and he started abusing the referee," he recalled. "I said 'shut your trap or you're gone'."

That’s one way to deal with abuse of sporting officials, but on Wednesday afternoon the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, chaired by Niamh Smyth TD, gathered to discuss wider efforts to deal with the levels of invective suffered by officials and players, both online and in the ‘real world’.

Among those invited to speak to the committee was Mary O’Connor, chief executive of the Federation of Irish Sport, who produced a list of proposals aimed at tackling the issue, among them requiring sporting venues to have signage detailing the “terms of admission” for supporters, any abuse of officials or players resulting in ejection from the ground, as well as developing a code of conduct that sporting bodies would have to adopt.

“We need to get the message out there that there is zero tolerance and a responsibility on individuals to act appropriately whether they’re at an under-six parish league or an intercounty game. Abuse of people has devastating consequences, not just for the individual but for their families and friends too,” she said. “It’s not nice out there.”

Senator Malcolm Byrne asked O'Connor if she felt social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook were taking this issue seriously. "Honestly, no," she said, stressing that the online safety commissioner promised by Catherine Martin, the minister with responsibility for the area, should have the power to investigate and act upon online abuse of officials and players.

Cassells, Peter Fitzpatrick TD, the former Louth manager who is now chairman of the Louth County Board, and Senator Micheál Carrigy all suggested that funding be withheld from sporting bodies and clubs until they sign up to the proposed code of conduct which would require "zero tolerance" towards abuse of officials and players, as well as racist, sexist or homophobic behaviour.

“There was €150 million given out in February to 1,900 clubs and every single one of those should be adhering to the proposed code of conduct. And if they don’t, that’s the bartering tool,” said Cassells.

“The despicable, disgusting language aimed at officials and players by anonymous trolls and keyboard warriors – is that something sport is just going to have to live with?” asked Christopher O’Sullivan TD.

"No," said Dr Una May, who succeeded John Treacy as chief executive of Sport Ireland in January, "we need to challenge people who think it's all just part of sport."

“Sport is so emotive sometimes, people try to excuse the abuse,” said O’Connor.

The chief concern for both ceos was the impact of this abuse on the numbers of people willing to volunteer in sport, particularly in the area of officiating.

Cassells, who has the most royal of football lineages, might have come up with a solution. “I play over-40s football of a Tuesday night, ‘Dads and Lads’, we operate a system with no referee,” he revealed. “But we can do that in Meath because we’re such good sportsmen.”

The groans from the committee were deafening. Abusive, even.