Daniel Watters is a PhD candidate in Queens University, Belfast. He holds an LLB from UUJ and an LLM from TCD. His current research in QUB centers around the use of criminal law in dealing with occurrences of violence between sports participants.
Over the last two years, Luis Suarez, a leading footballer in the Premier League, has been involved in two unsavoury acts committed on the field of play. In the same period of time, numerous similar acts have been reported and dealt with (very rarely satisfactorily) by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The first of these incidents concerned the alleged use of racist language towards an opposing player. A complaint was made by Patrice Evra, alleging that Suarez had made a racist remark to him during the course of a match. The incident was investigated by the FA and submissions were made by both sides. The inquiry was chaired by a leading Queen’s Counsel in England and a full 115 page report was released by the FA two months after the alleged incident took place. The report contained all details of the investigation, submissions by both sides, expert evidence regarding the alleged abusive words, the main factual disputes, the charge, the penalty and finally the conclusion of the inquiry team. The final result was that Suarez was found guilty of the charge against him, fined £40,000 and also handed an eight game ban from football.
In the GAA world over the last two years, there have been numerous racial incidents reported. Lee Chin, dual inter-county star for Wexford, was racially abused by two opposing players during a match in 2012 and both players were suspended for the minimum of eight weeks each. There was no publication of an official report or transcript of the investigation into the incident. Neither was any reasoning provided to explain the sanctions imposed on the players.
A more worrying example is that of Aaron Cunningham. During a match against Kilcoo, Cunningham alleged that he was the victim of abuse by two opposing players. An initial investigation by the Ulster Council led to bans of six and four months for the players. On appeal, the six month ban was reduced to four months while the four month ban was rescinded. As with the previous case, there was no written report published regarding the investigation or the appeal. Such a lack of transparency will not only deter future players from playing the game, it could also lead to players looking elsewhere for justice, such as making a complaint to An Garda Siochana or the Police Service of Northern Ireland which is a rare occurrence due to the ‘sporting omerta’ that players currently adhere to.
The second Suarez incident concerns him biting an opposing player during a live televised game in April 2013. The FA charged Suarez with violent conduct and decided that the standard three game ban was insufficient and applied for a longer ban. As a result of the FA inquiry he was handed a ten game ban by the independent panel and a report, this time twenty-one pages long, was published by the FA.
Two biting incidents were reported this year in the Irish media concerning the GAA, yet no transparency is evident. The first concerned Paddy McBrearty, an All-Ireland winner with Donegal in 2012. At half-time of a match against Dublin in April 2013, McBrearty told the referee he had been bitten. Afterwards he was examined by the Donegal medical team and subsequently went to a hospital for precautionary blood tests. As a result of this incident, the Central Competitions Controls Committee (CCCC) proposed a three game ban for the offending Dublin player; Kevin O’Brien. The Dublin County Board refuted the allegation and appealed the decision. McBrearty was asked to attend the appeal but choose not to, and as a result of his absence the Central Hearings Committee (CHC) cleared O’Brien of any wrongdoing. This led to a bitter war of words between the Donegal manager and the GAA. The Donegal manager Jim McGuinness said that the committee had all the evidence they needed to prove the allegation, while the President of the GAA accused Donegal of not seeing the matter through. Once again, there was no report released by the CCCC or the CHC on the actual investigation or the reasoning for their respective decisions.
The second biting incident occurred in May 2013 and resulted in the victim requiring stitches for a wound to his ear. Anthony Gaynor, the perpetrator, received a twenty week ban for his part in this assault. Gaynor never attended the hearing or appealed the decision but the father of the victim called for a minimum suspension of a year for such a ‘serious and despicable act’. Like the previous cases mentioned, there was no report published by the Cavan County Board who advised it is their policy not to publish the outcome of disciplinary hearings.
The major issue that arises here is one of transparency and consistency regarding investigations and disciplinary hearings in the GAA. The GAA is essentially a professional organisation running an ‘amateur’ sport. It is time that the powers that be within the organisation give the players and administrators an effective and transparent disciplinary system, similar to the FA procedure. While it is acknowledged that there are differences between the FA and the GAA, the FA procedure represents best practice regarding conducting inquiries into incidents on the pitch and the subsequent publication of inquiry reports and reasons behind disciplinary decisions. While a 115 page report may not be necessary in GAA, a simple five to 10 page document outlining the charge, the arguments for and against, the decision and reasoning for the decision would improve players’ trust in such proceedings.
All four of the incidents that occurred during GAA matches could potentially lead to criminal prosecutions (criminal charges were brought against John Terry in England for alleged racism and Suarez was interviewed by police following the bite). Luckily for the offenders and the GAA, no such action was pursued. However, if players aren’t happy with the internal sanctions imposed it is only a matter of time before external measures are resorted to. Such measures could have very serious repercussions for the future of the GAA.
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