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The GAA’s common sense problem

There are very few things that can happen on a GAA pitch that will not result in at least one person, somewhere, with almost complete sincerity, defending the thing that has happened as “just part of the game”. A bit of eye gouging? Just part of the game. Swing an elbow into someone’s face? Just part of the game. Have a full on brawl at half time? Well, you love to see a bit of passion. Just part of the game.

The one rule, ironically, that breaks this trend is if something is imported from that hated garrison game, soccer: The sight of a player diving, or simulating a foul, will get every red-blooded GAA supporter in the land to their feet in outrage. There’s no place for that kind of thing. Leave it to the pansies.

For some people, this sort of ambivalent attitude to rules (can anyone define, precisely, what a foul is?) is part of the attraction. Gaelic Games are our national sport, and they embody the national spirit. Tough. Uncompromising. Gaelic. Slightly ambivalent about authority.

For others, the heretics, and unproper Irishmen, amongst us, it’s all a bit off-putting. We’d rather watch Kylian Mbappe rolling around on the ground like he’s been shot. At least the rules around that are clear.

But I wonder how even the most hard-line GAA defender could defend the association’s handling of the most recent controversy.

For those of you unaware, at the conclusion of the football senior club final, this past weekend, one of the teams, Kilmacud Crokes, just…. sent on an extra player. Whether this was intentional, or a genuine mix up involving a substitution, nobody seems to know for certain. But regardless, it came to pass that, at the end of the game, with the opposing team – Derry Champions, Glen – seeking a late winning goal, Kilmacud had 16 players on the field.

Even those of us who are not regular GAA watchers know that this is a fundamental breach of the rules. The rules call for 15 players on either side. Whether or not a 16th man directly interfered with play (which is hard to define in any case), it is transparently obvious that a team with more players has a comprehensive advantage over a team with fewer players. This is why getting sent off is seen as such a harsh and potentially decisive punishment in every sport where it is a possible sanction, after all.

In the case of such a blatant breach of the rules, in such a high stakes and high profile game, one might think that the governing body of the sport might have something to say. And yet, you would be wrong. The official stance of the GAA, at the time of writing, is that it is up to the losing side – Glen – to make a complaint. In other words, the GAA is comfortable with a major breach of the rules of its own sport, so long as nobody complains about it.

But by that logic, couldn’t teams just agree amongst themselves to alter the rules in every game? What if two clubs, for example, simply mutually agreed – for whatever reason – that their game would feature 17 players on each side? Would the GAA still have nothing to say? Would it still be the case that it would be up to someone involved in the game to complain?

This is not about the credibility of Gaelic Games as a sport: The GAA is the largest community organisation in Ireland, and sucks vast amounts of public money away from other sports, in part because of the huge public support it receives. But it is about the credibility of the GAA as a sporting regulatory authority. If it is unwilling to be proactive when a major breach of the laws of its own games has occurred in a major showpiece event, how can anyone take it seriously in addressing other issues in the game?

And what message is being sent, here, to the hundreds of thousands of children who play Gaelic Games daily, and weekly? Effectively, it seems to be that cheating (whether deliberate or inadvertent) is okay, so long as you don’t get caught or nobody complains. That it is, to come back to that awful phrase again, “just part of the game”.

It is also, aside from all of that, desperately unfair to the Glen players, and their club. These are amateur athletes, who have given up years of their life, time with family and partners, to reach the highest pinnacle of club football. For some it will have been the biggest day of their lives, at least on a par with their weddings. And to get there, and then witness a defeat where they had to play against 16 players in a key part of the game, must be galling.

It is not as if a replay would be hard to schedule. The GAA never has an offseason. It is a perennial sport. Its values are supposed to be about fairness, and competition, and hard work, and justice. Replaying this game is just common sense, and it should not take one club complaining (and inevitably being denounced by some “part of the game” types as sore losers) to make it happen.

The GAA is either a serious organisation, or it is not.

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