ON Sunday just past, I was at the Knockmore-Aughamore championship match at Knockmore. Jerome Henry, one of our best referees, was in the middle and refereed the game very well indeed.
Everyone was on their best behaviour, the cloud of the Roscommon affair hanging over every game played last weekend. Afterwards, I shook hands with Jerome and complimented his refereeing. He was wary when I touched him on the shoulder to attract his attention as he went towards the changing room, and was relieved when I thanked him.
It is something we should all do after every game. In the Connacht club semi-final last year, in the last minute, Jerome didn’t see a mark being claimed by a Mountbellew-Moylough forward as he went to ground amidst a crowd of Pearses defenders. The play continued and he was blown up for over-carrying. Mountbellew-Moylough lost.
At the final whistle, some of their players swarmed Jerome, jostling and abusing him. It was a scary incident and Jerome had to be escorted from the field. Suspensions followed, but they made no impact on the problem.
We cannot get a catholic priest. Soon, we will not be able to get a referee.
In the GAA, we treat referees like shit and I’m as bad as the next man. The referee is viewed in the same way as the car clamper or the traffic warden. He is the enemy. He is someone to be suspicious of. Someone who (for no logical reason) we believe is giving soft frees to the other team and giving us nothing.
In our culture, referees have no parents. They have volunteered to do the job because they have a perverse interest in ruining the game. Referees rank around the same level of popularity as Covid or Sammy Wilson.
It is this culture that allows a referee to be knocked unconscious in an u-17 match. The rumour that has taken hold is that the referee was head-butted. This is due to a Whatsapp message from a person purporting to be at the game which quickly went viral.
The Whatsapp was accompanied by a video which did not show any assault, but did show a mentor marching towards the referee, then walking back towards the sideline as the referee lay prostrate on the pitch.
This version of events has been strongly disputed, with reliable sources saying that the referee was instead pushed forcibly backwards by the mentor, fell and banged his head. Either way, it is a scandal. Worse for me is the fact that after he falls to the ground and lies there motionless, no one reacts for some time, leaving him lying there.
No one remonstrates with or apprehends the mentor.
If this happened in rugby, the players and other officials would be enraged and the referee would have been stood up for. Us? We simply stood by and let it all unfold. Referees, after all, deserve everything they get.
We urgently need to build an entirely new culture around our volunteer officials. These empty “Give respect, Get respect” campaigns are the stuff of sugary PR companies. They pay lipservice to the problem. In English soccer, they wear the tee shirts and shake hands before every game, then spend 90 minutes rolling around on the ground trying to get each other sent off.
Words are not going to cut it. We need a new structure that encompasses zero tolerance rules allied with programs that every club in the land must comply with.
When there is proof of an assault in a GAA ground, the club should immediately suspend the person.
An assault on an official should be an automatic life-time ban from all GAA activities. Secondly, if there is sufficient evidence, the Guards need to make an arrest and charge the offender. Far too often the close relationship between the Guards and the club means a blind eye is turned. If it happened on the street, the offender would be in court. There should be no difference with the GAA.
There is a very strong societal reason to protect our referees. Without them, the greatest amateur association in the world would quickly collapse.
The Roscommon referees have gone on strike. They are absolutely right. Their action is not due to this one horrendous incident. Their action is a response to the culture that we have permitted. A culture that encourages our players and members to loathe the referee and view him as a partisan figure.
Referees in our game are tortured. Players, mentors, the crowd, shout and complain at them and argue over every decision. They are expected to have the skin of an armadillo, to endure all of this and yet remain calm and dispassionate in the heat of the battle. We expect them to have perfect discipline yet have none of those expectations for ourselves.
My son Toirealach was a keen rugby player. He started playing at Malone when he was 11 and was shocked to find he was spending most of the session on the sideline having questioned a decision. His team-mates were upset with him for mouthing. His rugby coaches made it clear this was totally unacceptable and if it continued, they would be forced to send him home for good. He quickly learned not to open his mouth, not because he didn’t want to, but because rugby’s zero tolerance culture doesn’t permit it. Soon, it was second nature for him.
The GAA needs to create a set of draconian rules that outlaw any criticism of the officials, any remonstration of any kind and any physical contact. I suggest that if a player criticises a decision or remonstrates with a referee, he receives an immediate red card and a minimum eight-week ban. For a mentor, a red card and a minimum 16-week ban.
Deliberate physical contact should result in a red card and minimum 12-month ban for a player. For a mentor, a lifetime ban. Similar rules should apply to spectators.
Perhaps, like rugby, we could have a dispensation for the team captain, who can ask the referee for an explanation of a decision in certain circumstances. The GAA should mount a proper nationwide publicity campaign around this, circulating the rules to every club along with an educational program that should be taught to all club members and players, starting with the toddlers.
In rugby, a 6’8” 21 stone guy can be poleaxed by a terrible tackle, get up and go quietly back to his position, leaving the officials to make the decision, whatever that may be. In our games, a referee decides not to give a foul, a mentor abuses him, gets a red card, comes onto the field and attacks him, everyone stands and watches, the club protects the mentor and terms like “witch hunt” and “trial by social media” appear.
The GAA has allowed this rotten culture to persist, doing a bit of virtue signalling and running some sugary PR campaigns, but in truth doing nothing. The referees in Roscommon are right to go on strike. They have no other choice. They have no real support. You have to have superhuman mental strength to be a referee. You have to be prepared to be loathed. Like catholic priests, we are running out of them.
The Roscommon referees should go on strike until the end of this season. Sitting around with no training and no games to play or watch, we will soon learn that the referees are the lifeblood of our community and that every one of them should be respected and protected by all of us. By doing this, the GAA will be forced, finally, to take real action.
We should all be ashamed of ourselves.