Kicking Out: Time to retire the rulebook and get tough on discipline
THE last ten minutes of Mayo and Galway bore more than a passing resemblance to an infamous NBA clash between the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets.
The year was 2006 and there were just over 90 seconds remaining and the Nuggets were heading down the home straight, leading 119-100.
JR Smith was about to lay up another two points when the Knicks’ Marty Collins came across with what they call a ‘hard foul’, a term used to describe something beyond the normal boundaries of the game’s limited physicality.
In this case, Collins was high around the neck (like a much milder version of Diarmuid O’Connor’s high tackle that earned him a second yellow card at the weekend.)
A bit of pulling and hauling ensued before the NBA’s leading scoring Carmelo Anthony threw the one punch of the whole incident.
It lasted all of about 50 seconds and at the end of it, all 10 players that were on the court at the time were ejected from the game.
What followed was severe.
The NBA had taken a firm stand after a brawl two years previous between Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons spilled dangerously into the crowd.
Ron Artest had been the first in after a cup of water thrown by a fan had hit him and he ended up suspended for the rest of the season – some 73 regulation games plus 13 playoff games. It also cost him almost $10m in wages.
Two years on, when the Knicks and the Nuggets squared off, the NBA decided that the job still wasn’t done. So for that one punch, Carmelo was given a 15-match ban. Nate Robinson and JR Smith were given 10 games each. In all, seven players were suspended and the two teams were fined an unprecedented $500,000 each.
It worked. Commissioner David Stern took heat at the time for the gravity of the punishments but 12 years on, their legacy is sealed in there not having been a single brawl of any consequence in the NBA since.
How you would go about numerising how many there are in the GAA in any given year depends on your definition of a brawl. Like most things in our confusing little world, it’s not exactly black and white.
Our equivalent was Meath and Mayo in ’96, for which there were a grand total of 39 months’ worth of bans handed down. But only Meath midfielder Jimmy McGuinness, who got six months, missed any more than the first round of the following year’s National League.
That seems barely believable given the scale of the violence that infamous September afternoon, but seems just about right in another way given the GAA’s age old struggle with making the punishment fit the crime.
Its leniency is grounded in the old time-based punishment system, where four weeks at the wrong time of year could have been disastrous for a player, while four weeks at a different time could see a player not miss so much as a single training session after being sent off.
It would be a worthless but interesting study to see how many players have ever been sent off in the final five minutes of a knockout championship game they were already beaten in.
The move towards match bans in recent years ought to have been a positive step towards a fairer system for all, but it has been undermined by the apparent softening of some of the punishments for some of the more common offences.
Despite leading with elbow into the side of Eoghan Kerin’s head, it’s unlikely that Cillian O’Connor will get any more than a one-match ban.
That’s because, ridiculously, striking with the elbow is held in the same regard as striking with an open hand.
Gaelic football’s disciplinary structure is boiled down into six categories but the first two only cover yellow and black card offences, and the last two only cover conduct towards match officials.
Category III carries a minimum one-match ban and covers striking, kicking without force, spitting and contributing to a melee, as well as the open-ended “behaving in any way which is dangerous to an opponent”.
Category IV, you’d assume, covers everything else but it too is a closed shop, and in many cases only covers more serious instances of the offences covered in category III. And the black-and-white punishment? You guessed it, a minimum of two games.
And grounded in an actual lack of competitive games and the fact that men are giving up so much time to play an amateur game, the GAA way, both at national and local level, has always been to reach for the bare minimum first.
That no longer suffices at inter-county level. Fine, the time commitment has increased, but so have the rewards. It’s no longer the case that these lads are getting nothing back.
In soccer, the rules are written in such a way that they are more easily upheld and very much put the onus on an appellant to prove their innocence beyond doubt. And they are also written in a way that allows a wide scope for the disciplinary bodies to judge cases as they see fit.
In 1992, Frank Sinclair was banned for nine games for pushing referee Paul Alcock. When Paolo Di Canio pushed the same official six years later, he was given eight games. Southampton’s David Prutton was banned for ten games for shoving Alan Wiley in 2005.
Every case is different but with cameras at all the games now, disciplinary bodies are in a better position than ever to judge each offence on its merits and punish accordingly.
A one-match ban for punching someone is grossly lenient. You could seriously injure someone, possibly end their career and end up with no more than a couple of games out.
GAA officials partly don’t have the freedom or power to do what the NBA did and come down hard, because they are beholden to an antiquated rulebook.
Only with its complete overhaul can a tougher stance on discipline be achieved.