GAA President Larry McCarthy.

Time for 'zero tolerance' approach in GAA

Columnist and pundit Damien Donohoe gives his latest take on the GAA.

In order for rules to work, there must be consequences for your actions - and it needs to be more than just lip service. If an organisation merely says that there are punishments for breaking the rules and does not enforce them, well, in reality, there's no consequence.

On Sunday afternoon, as I sat to watch the second pairing of All-Ireland quarter finals in Croke Park, like everybody else I was disgusted with the scenes at full-time in the Galway v Armagh game.

Questions of how situations like this continue to arise quickly flooded social media and the blame game landed at the perpetrators’ door straight away. But in reality, are the players to blame when the rules are not enforced by the GAA? And to what degree do management teams prioritise old-fashioned sportsmanship when they are preparing their sides?

It seems that in the GAA, we like to have lots of rules but the enforcement of them isn't always consistent. To a lesser extent, you only have to look at all four games on the weekend to see countless examples of where the rules are blatantly ignored.

Not just this weekend but for quite some time, a bugbear of mine has been that frees are no longer taken from the spot where the foul was committed. Almost every free-taker taking a free from the hands (as the majority do) will steal a number of yards before executing the shot and it has been years since I've seen a referee punish a player for this offence.

Like most rules, it only takes the referees implementing them properly for this behaviour to change but for some reason the top referees in the country have decided to ignore where frees should be taken from. Unfortunately, in big games, this sometimes does affect the outcome of the contest.

You could see over the weekend that the referees have decided to take more control of what happens during throw-ins at the start of each half. All four referees clearly signalled to the players contesting the throw-in that they must start closer together rather than take the long run up we've seen become more common over the last while. All four referees focusing on the same indiscretion on the same weekend cannot be a coincidence.

Another rule that is generally ignored by referees is the hand pass. Where a right-handed player is trying to pass to ball to a player to his right-hand side, he will invariably not strike the ball but instead will throw it with no striking action. The cleanest and best way to pass the ball to a player to your right-hand side is to hold the ball in your right hand and strike in it with are left hand. And yet this rule is ignored a lot, as is the ‘four steps’ rule.

It's almost comical at this stage to watch substitutes coming on to the field of play on television in these big games. Nine times out of 10, the player entering the field of play will take the gumshield from their mouth and tuck it in their sock or shorts. Again, this is a rule that's been blatantly ignored by the majority of referees as there is no doubt a referee can see the bulge of the gumshield in a player’s sock if they look closely, but decide to ignore it.

There are countless occasions where you can see on TV a player either winning a free or giving away a free speaking to the referee immediately after the offence without a gumshield insight. Yet for some reason the referees choose not to take action when it comes to this blatant infraction of the rules.

On Sunday, you could clearly see in the Mayo v Kerry game that the Mayo keeper Rob Hennelly wasn’t using a kicking tee for his kick-outs. The umpires and the referee allowed this to continue the entire way through the game.

Also, in that game, it appeared that Aidan O'Shea was shown a black card for ‘abuse to an opponent’. As pointed out at half-time by the panel on RTE, if this rule was to be enforced, there would be dozens of black cards in every single game but once again it proves as an example that rules don't always hold consequences in the GAA.

Earlier on this year we saw in the Armagh v Tyrone league game in the Athletic Grounds another unsavoury incident. When referee David Gough handed out five red cards, all five were appealed. In the final game of the league against Donegal, Armagh were once again involved in a fracas.

Armagh management and county board decided on both occasions to appeal the punishment and for the three players sanctioned for their involvement in what happened in the Donegal game, all three got off and were available to play in the championship as a result.

While at no point am I condoning the behaviour of the players involved in what we saw at the end of full-time in Sunday's All-Ireland quarter-final, I do believe the entire blame doesn't fall at the feet of the players and members of management or backroom teams who got involved.

The higher-ups in both the GAA as well as the teams involved must share the responsibility. Rules are there to stop these sorts of situations from happening but they only work if the punishment is a strong enough deterrent to over-rule the will to get involved.

In the GAA, rules are often more like guidelines than hard and fast laws. I saw it first-hand with the Cavan U20s this year; the Clár clearly states what time a team is allowed to enter the field of play to begin their warm-up and which team is to enter the tunnel at half-time first. There are also competition rules that clearly state the number of players allowed to tog out and the number of people involved with a team that are allowed in the dressing room or around the field of play. These rules are regularly broken and, to my knowledge, sanctions are rarely placed on the offending county.

In the 1990s in New York, Mayor Giuliani introduced ‘zero tolerance policing’ to clean up the streets of the city. A zero tolerance policy is one which imposes a punishment for every infraction of a stated rule.

Zero tolerance policies are defined as rules which forbid people in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances; subjectively they are required to impose a predetermined punishment regardless of individual culpability, extenuating circumstances or history.

Maybe now, with a resident of New York at the top of the GAA, it's time to implement the punishments for infractions of the rules with a zero tolerance approach of our own. Or, alternatively, if a rule is not fit for purpose or able to be properly implemented, then it should be got rid of.

Hopefully we don't see the scenes from Sunday regularly in the GAA but if we don't start to punish breaking of the rules, then unfortunately you can't blame individuals for continuing to push the boundaries.