After the 1996 All-Ireland final between Meath and Mayo where the players from both sides took it upon themselves to exact retribution on each other, the GAA decided it was time to clean up the game.
Statements were sent out at the time for provincial and county boards to stamp out such actions. A spate of player suspensions followed and because the Association didn’t keep any tabs on the situation the games resolution body had to be set up because county boards and provincial boards were heavy handed in carrying out their actions, not always staying inside the rule book.
But it would have to be said the game was tidied up a fair bit. Yes, there were occasions when players got a punch or two and yes, referees came under the spotlight of supporters but overall generally the game had been well cleaned up.
Is that last sentence misleading? Could it be we just learned from other sporting organisations and we hid it a lot better? Maybe. It should be said that in this country we have a poor record of hidings things, keeping things under the table and suggesting that’s all is well in the land of the shamrock; we know better.
So when Sean Cavanagh’s injuries that he sustained in a Tyrone championship match are put up on social media, you have to wonder if anything has changed when it comes to discipline within the GAA. The game itself was littered with yellow, black and red cards; Cavanagh, a three-time All-Ireland winner with Tyrone, had to be taken to hospital because of his injuries. He sustained concussion, a broken nose and extensive facial injuries and the player that inflicted these injuries was not booked or sent off.
Is it a reflection of Tyrone football or is it a reflection on the way sport has gone? Is it a reflection on the way Gaelic football has gone? Has the game from underage up got to a stage where the fun and enjoyment has gone out of it and it has become far too serious?
Cavanagh will not have been the only player that had to be taken to hospital or a doctor last weekend because of the over robust nature of markers sent out to do a certain job on a county or well named player on the opposition 15. The game is slowly but surely going back to the day where match officials are under a fierce amount of pressure to keep control of games, even at underage level.
Maybe we can fire a bit of the blame on the officials; they're an easy target. Go for the individuals that are low in numbers and hope that all the controversy blows over for another year. It’s called kicking the problem down the road.
In the last couple of weeks we have heard of alleged incidents within our own county; an U-14 game were a referee was allegedly escorted off the field after the final whistle and held up in the dressing room until the crowd decided to go home. Of course, I use the word alleged because even though there was plenty of talk around the county about the incident, if it didn’t appear in the referee’s report it didn’t happen according to the Official Guide of the GAA.
Why match officials don't report incidents is down to the referees concerned. Maybe referees might not want the storm of abuse that might come with that complaint. Maybe we need to change the way these incidents are to be reported and leave the matter up to the law of the land and not to a volunteer who might have travelled to the game on his own and is worried about getting out of there in one piece.
Then there was the alleged incident at a club senior championship game where all hell broke loose while the players were out warming up and then again before they came out onto the pitch. A player and a club member were injured in the proceedings allegedly, nothing happened because the match official put nothing in his report. Maybe none of the match officials seen the incident. Nonetheless, the game is not better for it. However, it needs to be said if the match official puts nothing in his or her report and nothing changes, are they complicit in nothing being done to stamp out this behaviour.
Of course, we all have been at games were incidents happen and match officials could be stuck in the middle of it but nothing is done about it. Maybe it’s the usual Irish nod and a wink but we all see where that attitude has got us. Look at the mess of State institutions and religious organisations because of the culture of keeping it within the group.
Do we let these situations fester or do we approach them head on and deal with the matter in the nature it should be dealt with? Remember, young people are watching on and if they see nothing happening to those that carry out these actions what do we expect from those very same kids in the future?
How do we expect to encourage more people to take up refereeing if they know they are not going to be protected, both on and off the field? Surely we need action not just from relevant county boards but from Croke Park, and not the idea that they shout down the message and everyone is supposed to obey. It has to be educational from underage upwards, coaches, players, match officials, county board officials and parents. Until we approach it in a more open and transparent nature nothing changes.
Have we learned nothing from the mistakes of the past?