Jack Anderson on Sports Law in IT

Eugene McGee in the Indo describes violence and rioting as a cancer in
the GAA and I have to agree with him. The best way to deal with the
Port Laoise melee is to report the incident formally to the Gardai and
have the identifiable perpetrators inteviewed and subjected to the
DPP. A large fine would deter copycats. The GAA should expel both from
next years championship and let them play in local leagues. Much more
inportant that paying managers!

Failure to rein in passions in the GAA could be criminal

JACK ANDERSON

BROKEN JAWS, fractured cheekbones, black eyes, concussed players,
distraught parents, spouses and children. This is just a flavour of
what is alleged to have occurred at Sunday’s All-Ireland junior club
football semi-final between Tyrone club Derrytresk and Kerry’s Dromid
Pearses.

The GAA has begun an investigation and gardaí are waiting to speak to
a number of those involved. It would be easy, but also wrong, to
prejudge what happened on Sunday and those responsible for it.

The basic tenet of any sports disciplinary process is that the more
serious the allegations of wrongdoing; the more serious the procedural
safeguards that must surround it.

For now, the one uncontested fact is that Derrytresk will take part in
the All-Ireland junior club football final on February 12th after what
their opponents admitted was a deserved victory.

It would also be easy and again wrong to scapegoat one club or a set
of players for the misbehaviour of many.

Accordingly, whatever the outcome of the investigation the GAA must
confront a broader question as to whether it has an ambivalent
approach towards, or tolerance of, violence. The point being that if
the GAA or any sports organisation is seen to have a lax attitude
towards personal violence, then criminal law may have to intervene.

Contact sports, such as Gaelic games, have a strong element of
physicality to them. What normally occurs on a pitch is not deemed an
assault because players are said to consent to levels of contact
within the rules and spirit of the game. Violence occurring outside
this is, however, potentially criminal in nature.

The criminal law is not some distant threat and players, substitutes,
and spectators should be aware of its reach.

Last November, for instance, at Cork District Court a Gaelic
footballer was convicted of assault causing harm to another player.
The victim was kicked in the jaw while on the ground.

As regards substitutes, a case of interest called Lawrence was heard
in December at the English court of appeal. During a Sunday league
soccer game, a row broke out between two players. Almost immediately
members of both teams squared up to each other and one of the
substitutes struck an opposing player causing him serious injury. The
sub was convicted of inflicting grievous bodily harm. Despite an array
of good character testimonials from those who had worked and played
with the accused, the court of appeal agreed that a jail term of nine
months was appropriate.

In both of the above cases, the judges stressed the cowardly nature of
the assaults.

For spectators in Northern Ireland, certain GAA matches will now come
under the North’s Justice Act of 2011, which makes it a criminal
offence for an individual to go onto any area of a pitch to which
spectators are not generally admitted, unless that person can prove
that he/she had a lawful excuse to do so.

In addition, the 2011 Act provides, like English legislation on
football hooliganism, that banning orders can be sought by the police
against individuals responsible for violence or disorder at certain
games.

Legislation of this kind does not exist here.

There was a suggestion that it might have to be considered to deter
spectators at Croke Park from invading the pitch at trophy
presentation time on All-Ireland final days. In this regard, with some
irony, the GAA feared litigation from spectators who might suffer
injury in any resulting crush.

Having said that, the law and lawyers should be the last resort in
dealing with violence in sport. It is always preferable that solutions
come from inside the sport and there are, for example, two regulatory
initiatives that the GAA might consider.

First, it might, as most other sports organisations have, create a
full-time disciplinary officer position. This officer could bring
greater speed, consistency and independence to many aspects of the
GAA’s current disciplinary regime whose labyrinthine nature can
sometimes be exploited to detrimental effect.

The second matter is to reconsider the manner in which those involved
in violent incidents are punished. Fines are largely ineffective.
Suspending a club as a whole, including its underage structure, for
the misconduct of a few is often a blunt, unfair and self-defeating
means of sanction. Meaningful suspensions targeting individuals are
best practice.

Finally, the most important matter that the GAA may have to deal with
– and one that sports as diverse as Canadian ice hockey and Australian
rules football have addressed – is that a violent ethos is not
attractive. It alienates the general fan, parents, children, sponsors
and skilful players.

Local rivalry and passion are the GAA’s greatest strength but are
also, on occasion, its fundamental weakness. Not controlling them may
well be criminal.

Jack Anderson lectures in sports law at Queen’s University, Belfast