Less brawl games, more ball games please!
A few years ago I penned a really cranky piece about the Kilkenny hurlers, which, mercifully, was never published. It was way over the top and because of that its core message — which I still stand by — was hopelessly occluded and too easily dismissed.
I felt — and still do — that Brian Cody’s men in their pomp had a meanness to go with their magnificence, and it made me very uncomfortable.
And, no, not just because I am from Tipperary, so often run over by the black and amber machine in recent times!
Rather I came to believe the issue is not about Kilkenny under Cody, it’s actually about us.
That’s us as players, coaches, fans, and guardians, and what lies between what what we preach about sport and what we actually practise.
There’s a darkness on the edge of the square, as Bruce Springsteen might have sung if he was a GAA man.
“Where no one asks any questions, or looks too long in your face”.
I am confining my observations here to amateur sport, especially our own main Gaelic games, football and hurling.
These have been infected for some time by a particularly virulent strain of the man-made virus, Agent Machismo. Players affected usually display a reckless regard for authority and safety — their own and others — as they go about harassing, haranguing, intimidating and generally trying to stop an opponent from playing.
Sometimes the ball hasn’t even be thrown in and players are at it: all brawny-shouldered rutting, dragging jerseys and jabbing ribs.
The virus is so infectious traces of it have been identified even in those only looking on. Symptoms here include ugly contortion of the facial muscles, with the visage itself turning a most unbecoming shade of puce. These are invariably accompanied by a strange compulsion to rage at the players on rival teams and referees and linesmen when they make idiotic decisions, ie in favour of the opposition.
In its most extreme manifestation, this abuse is directed at the patient’s own team’s players who fail to heed instruction, or who let themselves be intimidated in any way by a rival. This is also known as projection.
At its most pernicious, the virus attacks the victim’s primary motor cortex, which generates the neural impulses that control the execution of movement. The result is an irresistible urge to intervene directly in contentious matters on the pitch or the sideline.
The most baffling thing of all about Agent Machismo, however, and which makes tackling it so difficult, is the acute reluctance of those infected to even admit they are ill! To themselves, let alone any one who might treat them.
As a result, all that is needed for Agent Machismo to spread and thrive is that its use be encouraged, or even condoned.
As parents, coaches and fans, we are all susceptible, and some of us are even carriers. The question is do we continue allow it to spread or do we look for a real cure?
Coaches and players in every sport, at every level, will do just about anything to win. It might not be within the rules, but so what if they get away with it seems to be prevailing attitude — and we are not just talking about intercounty set-ups or clubs at senior level.
Maybe it’s the extra physicality of Gaelic games and all the tribal passions they stir up, but, anecdotally, the rows, the pitch invasions and the aggro seems to happen more often here than in other sports.
So we read late last year of the 17-year-old footballer who received a double leg break in an alleged assault during a juvenile football match in Co Meath. Conor Cribben-Hayes (17), was allegedly stamped on repeatedly by an opposition player in a 12-person melee during his team Clann na nGael’s match with Kells club Gael Colmcille, in Rathcairn.
Paramedics took the teenager by stretcher to a neighbour’s home, and an ambulance arrived to take him to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda.
Around the same time, a group of adults walked on to the field after a melee in the under-14 hurling game between Tullogher Rosbercon and Galmoy Windgap in Kilkenny city and one of them allegedly assaulted one of the players.
Simon Kennedy (13) was knocked unconscious and treated by a nurse at the scene before being moved by ambulance to St Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny. The game was called off and gardaí were called.
Maybe these are isolated incidents signifying nothing, but they could also be viewed as just more extreme expressions of the machismo and misguided passions we are talking about.
As the father of two sporting children, I am also worried, like many, about this win at all costs attitude and related fouling, sledging and every kind of nefarious practice from planted elbows and sly follow-throughs to actual, maybe even career-ending, assaults.
Are the big name players to blame for setting bad example, or does the rot set in much earlier?
Think of all that stuff we tell our children about fair play and all shake hands at the end when they can see perfectly well what is happening out there on any patch of grass or court across the land. And encounter it when they cross the white line.
Respect the referee at all times, we say. Oh yeah, so why are daddy, mammy and my coach shouting their heads off at him every second week from overwrought stands and sidelines?
Who among us doesn’t ignore our own team’s transgressions while screaming blue murder when the opposition do something similar?
The elephant in the room here is the question of bravery, or as it is more euphemistically put, “heart”.
“Don’t let him push you around,” the coach shouts to the little 10-year-old corner forward being elbowed and needled off the ball by the husky corner back, “get stuck into him!”
There is another message implicit here: don’t be relying on the rules, or the referee. Hit him back.
But bravery comes in many forms. Is the grizzled defensive enforcer dishing out the hard stuff — on or off the ball — actually braver than the Dublin footballers’ Bernard Brogan, who only has eyes for the ball and takes the hits as he battles to get to it ahead of his man and hopefully swivel-hit another trademark point?
Players only do nasty things or wrong things if their coaches let them, or, let us say, don’t discourage them, or if they won’t be punished. End of.
Sledging? If you did it in golf, it would be social death in the locker-room. It’s just not done, old boy.
So are we going to hell in a handcart or were things better before?
The first All-Ireland final I ever went to, in 1969, I saw the Eddie Keher-led Kilkenny hurlers beat Cork by 2-15 to 2-9.
Reeling in all those great Kilkenny teams down the years, I have an image of hardy, natural hurlers and natural, unassuming sportsmen. Like the Kerry footballers, their successes just didn’t seem to attract the same resentment as that of others.
I know they were bank officials, teachers and the rest, but if I think of a typical Kilkenny hurler from those halcyon days, I think of the fiery-headed centre-half-forward John Power.
I could just picture him in a green late summer field, sleeves rolled up, firing huge bales of hay on to a trailer, breaking off for tea and an All-Ireland hurling final … helping to land the Liam MacCarthy Cup before trotting off the Croke Park pitch, without a word, like the western hero disappearing into the sunset, back down to the farm, for more bales of hay, more All-Irelands.
Endless blue summers turning to black-and-amber autumns.
Now, I think of a modern-day Kilkenny hurling redhead, the great Henry Shefflin, not long retired, and I think of a prickliness to go with that peerless prowess. And maybe that prickliness, or competitive edge, was just as important as his skill in gaining those 10 All-Ireland medals and countless other honours on the field.
And there’s the rub. I am sure Shefflin’s edge was sharpened by the thousand foul strokes shipped and assorted calumnies endured when he was coming up, and maybe the hard lesson for all top level exponents is you have to be able to deal with the unsavoury stuff, and earn the space to despatch those wondrous points and goals.
Ah stop complaining, many of you are probably shouting at this point — if you have got this far! — sure, it’s a contact sport, FFS!
You’ve go to stand up for yourself! Yes, you do, and if you want to succeed, or win matches, you have to commit and be prepared to got at it hard — but fairly!
There is also a notion out there that Gaelic games, at the highest level, is a whole new ball game, to be judged differently; where the people we pay to see are like the gladiators of old, risking life, limb and reputation as they do or die to gain our bouquets or our brickbats. Any which way they can.
Maybe we should look a little deeper into this disparity between our more fanciful notions of noble sporting engagement and the reality. We’re talking ambiguity, or the lies we tell ourselves even when he think we are telling the truth.
The phrase “in vino veritas” is a familiar one, but when playing sport, one’s true character, I would argue, is also sooner or later revealed. Sport lets you be yourself, only more so.
Freud believed that for reasons of conscience, of shame, of guilt, or plain fear, certain unpalatable desires or feelings are pushed out of the conscious mind, or repressed into our unconscious. But they reappear, in not consciously recognised ways when the psychological guard is down. And it is very often down on the field of play … especially when we believe no-one is looking.
I would argue that sport can aid in the working through of one’s frustrations and existential dilemmas; it can, as Freud said of sublimation, contribute to our highest cultural pleasures. Having brought my then nine-year-old son to the All-Ireland hurling final between Tipp and Kilkenny and the replay in September 2015, I would vouch for the richness of that experience.
Johnny Rotten was right when he sang, “Anger is an energy”; anger and aggression can be positive forces if they are channelled, or sublimated, in a constructive manner
I am particularly interested in the role that sport can play in the formative years, and how, through it, one can learn not just about oneself, but how to deal with major life issues.
The child must come to accept what Freud called the reality principle. In other words, he must renounce his omnipotent claim on people and things, and join the world of others. As Eric Cantona once said, he must learn to play ze game.
I like that phrase “play the game” because there is the suggestion of pretending to conform in order to get what we want out of the game. Getting away with stuff. And very often encouraged to do so by one-eyed coaches. Or who at least don’t discourage it.
So, what do we do about all this? Again, I believe it’s down to us. We have to take a stand, or stands. Starting at the beginning. If your son’s or daughter’s coach is not doing right by them, let it be known, or change teams.
Referee, linesman or umpire, if things are getting out of hand on the sideline, warn the miscreants. If they persist, abandon the match. Lodge a complaint with their club, or with your governing body. It won’t go down well, and you’ll get an earful or two, but it won’t continue for long.
Yes, winning is what sport is all about, but there’s a good way to win and a bad way. And the bad way won’t work for long. Not if you want to really be the best.
Watching my children’s GAA and soccer matches week on week, I am seeing the future, and it is not always pretty. There’s thrills, spills and entertainment aplenty, but there’s also levels of hacking, fouling and abuse of referees that can still genuinely shock.
The emphasis too early on winning at all costs, and the fear losing engenders, is stifling creativity and killing skill and self-expression. I think it is not too fanciful to say that this is why soccer in Ireland and Britain has fallen so far behind the likes of Spain, Germany, and so many other countries. Yes, our resources are limited, but that’s all the more reason to to have quality coaching and well-organised, properly graded playing leagues.
Coaches and players are often the last ones to want or accept changes to their sport that might actually help the skillful player to thrive, but let us continue to try to fight the darker forces in our character that would blight our efforts to be the best people we can be.
And redouble our efforts to strive for sporting contests hard, unflinching, but fair. Play the ball and not the man!
— Enda Sheppard