Violence in Gaelic sports: what can be done to address it?

Published 02 September 2015 By: Daniel Watters

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The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is Ireland’s largest sporting organisation and one of the largest amateur sporting organisations in the world.1 It had a total revenue of €56 million in 2014.2 The organisations games include both Gaelic football and hurling, and its largest stadium, Croke Park is one of the largest stadiums in Europe. Unfortunately though, Gaelic sports also have a history of violence.3

Gaelic football is one of the GAA's main sports.  By way of background, there are numerous different grades at which Gaelic football is played from nurseries (under 6) right up to adult level. At adult club level, a team would play around about 20 matches a season. This may be split between a league, a championship and one or two other smaller competitions. Elite players who play with county teams (inter-county) play a preseason competition consisting of between three and five matches, a league consisting of at least seven matches, and a championship of at least two matches (and it can be up to around nine). The inter-county season generally runs from January to September, while the club season normally ends in October or November. Some clubs may progress to play in provincial matches which can run until the following March. The community nature of the sport promotes competitiveness between rival teams, which can from time-to-time boil over into physical assaults. The sport itself is also very physical and could be viewed as a hybrid of rugby and association football. It is played at a high intensity by two teams of fifteen players. An incident before a recent Gaelic football challenge match between Dublin and Armagh resulted in a broken nose for Dublin player Davy Byrne.4 While it hasn’t resulted in criminal proceedings against the perpetrator, it was another unfortunate example of violence in Gaelic sports.

This article will examine the increasing number of reported violent incidences in Gaelic sports that are resulting in criminal prosecutions, and comment on why inadequacies within the GAA’s internal disciplinary processes could be one such contributing factor.

Case law on violent incidents

Since the turn of the decade, there has been an increase in the number of GAA related cases coming before the courts of Ireland. While there has been cases going back before that, the increased amount of cases highlights this growing problem and the darker side of the games.

In 2011, Noel O’Donovan punched and kicked his opponent resulting in the victim having to receive three stitches.5 As a result, O’Donovan was prosecuted in Cork District court and fined €1,000.6 2012 saw two further examples of GAA related violence result in guilty verdicts. Both cases resulted in broken noses for the victims, similar to that of Davy Byrne above. James Cummins received the benefit of the Probation Act having pleaded guilty to assault causing harm and also providing €6,000 compensation for the victim.7, 8 Christopher Kennedy received an 18-month jail term, suspended for two years after pleading guilty to assaulting his victim during a Gaelic football match.9 The victim suffered a fractured nose and was also given €1,000 by Kennedy by way of compensation.10

Further cases in 2013 resulted in more suspended sentences for the defendants and compensation for the victims. Derek Sweetman kicked his opponent who suffered a broken jaw.11 Sweetman pleaded guilty to assault causing harm and received a two and a half year suspended jail term and provided €6,000 compensation for the victim.12 Kenneth Darby, who also broke his opponents jaw during a Gaelic football match, received a three-year jail term that was also suspended on the condition that he ‘keep the peace’,13 and was ordered to pay €12,500 in compensation.14

In 2014, one of the first jail terms for an assault was passed down in the in Macroom District Court.15 In a departure from the aforementioned cases, the defendant, Sean O’Sullivan, who pleaded not guilty on the basis that he only struck out in self-defence, was found guilty and sentenced to 2 months in jail for fracturing his opponents jaw during a Gaelic football match.16

While this case isn’t the first time a defendant has been sentenced to jail as a result of an assault during a match (the first recorded incident was that of Thomas Keane who bit part of an opponent’s ear off17), it is the first for a punch and it brings the sentencing of sporting assaults in line with that of the UK where an injury resulting in a broken jaw would most likely result in a jail term.18 The O’Sullivan case has the potential to change the attitude towards sentencing sporting assaults in Ireland, although time will tell if it does.19

By way of analysis, the main issue seen in the case law is the comparative lenience in sentencing compared to the UK. A broken jaw suffered during a match in the UK resulted in a 6-month jail term, whereas similar incidents in Ireland have normally resulted in suspended sentences. Why? It may well be that Irish judges don’t appear to view an assault on the field of play in the same way as an assault on the street. Perhaps, because of the sporting context, they do not view such offences as being as serious as, say, an assault outside of a nightclub, notwithstanding the similar damage caused to the victim. If this is true, it would be contrary to what the Irish judges are saying in their courtrooms.20 Unfortunately, the case law shows that Irish courts are less willing to impose a jail term (with the exception of O’Sullivan) in the evident of a serious assault occurring during a match.


Why is the criminal law being resorted to? A review of the GAA’s internal disciplinary process and its arguable inadequacies

Although the adequacy of criminal penalties is an important issue, perhaps the more pressing question for Gaelic sports is: why are so many cases ending up in court in the first place?

The author will suggest below that one of the core reasons the courts are see an increasing number of incidences of violent behaviour is that the GAA’s rules and internal disciplinary processes are failing to act as a sufficient deterrent, thus effectively facilitating violent behaviour and resulting in players feeling compelled to resort to the courts for justice.

Prior to that, however, the point must be made that no matter what a governing body’s internal rules state, the general criminal law will also apply to certain forms of violent behaviour notwithstanding their causal proximity to a contact sport.   Where the boundary lies between violent actions that remain solely within the jurisdiction of the sport, and those where the criminal law will also apply, is an interesting legal question. The concept is often termed “implied sporting consent” or “sporting exception”, and is examined in more detail in the next section.

Returning to the GAA’s internal disciplinary processes, the GAA’s most recent disciplinary handbook was published in April 2015.21 The handbook outlines the procedures regarding the application of any disciplinary action in the GAA. The Official Guide Part 122 and Part 223 both detail the different offences and sanctions available following a breach of discipline. The two most relevant sections for on the field violence are Rule 7.2 (b) Category III, which includes attempting to or actually striking or kicking an opponent; and Category IV, which includes attempting to or actually striking, head-butting or kicking an opponent either with force or causing injury.

The sanction for a Category III offence is a minimum 1-match ban; and for Category IV, the minimum is a 2-match ban. If the incident is deemed to have discredited the association under Rule 7.2 (e), which would include both Category III and IV, the minimum ban is an 8 week suspension and may be anything up to expulsion from the GAA. This is a wide ranging power and it affords the GAA the opportunity to impose a significant ban if it deems an act to discredit the Association. The breaking of a player’s nose would certainly seem to be an incident that would discredit the Association.

Under the procedures set out in in the disciplinary handbook, the referee’s report is key as it is seen as factual unless there is ‘unedited video evidence or other compelling evidence’ that shows the referee has made a mistake.24 If the player accepts the proposed penalty following an investigation of an allegation either via a referees report or through an investigation, that will be the end of the matter. If the player chooses to challenge the proposed penalty, then the alleged perpetrator has a right to a hearing. The evidential burden for proving an incident occurred is that the Hearings Committee must be satisfied that the infraction is more likely to have occurred than not to have occurred.25

As the evidential burden is not that of beyond reasonable doubt as in criminal proceedings, the opportunity for the GAA to stamp out violence via a swift disciplinary action is available as the burden can be met more easily than if it were to take place in a criminal court. If a sufficient penalty was imposed at this early stage, this would in all likelihood reduce the amount of players who feel it necessary to go the criminal justice system following an alleged infraction.


How does the GAA deal with violent incidents in practice and how do its actions compare to similar sporting bodies?

In the case of O’Sullivan, he initially received a 12 week ban from playing which was reduced to 8 on appeal. When contrasting this with the sentence imposed in the criminal courts, a 2 month term of imprisonment, it would seem to be quite a lenient ban. Similarly in the case of James Cummins, he received a 4 week playing ban as a result of his participation in an incident leading up to him striking his opponent. In the view of this author, if the GAA is unwilling to stamp out extreme levels of violence with longer bans, it will never stamp out the darker side of the games. Stronger guidance and support from the administrators in the association is needed to help local county boards when dealing with violent incidents.

In the Davy Byrne incident, the actual incident was not captured on camera or mentioned in the referees report so the GAA have not dealt with any individual players arising out of the incident. Instead they have imposed fines on both counties involved which may yet be appealed.26 In the view this author, the result of this investigation is quite unsatisfactory considering Byrne spent 2 nights in hospital due to his injury.

Compare this to the case of Ben Flower, who punched an opponent during the Rugby League Grand Final last year. He received a 6 month playing ban for knocking his opponent unconscious during the game. He also was fined by his club as a result of the incident.27 The imposition of such a lengthy ban at the outset laid down a strong message that the rugby league is not prepared to allow violent incidents to creep into the sport. Interestingly, a punch from English Rugby Union international Manu Tuilagi which left his victim requiring stitches only received a 5 match playing ban in 2011.28 The disciplinary officer also remarked that if the incident had occurred on the high street it would have led to criminal charges.29 At the time of the Flower incident there were also reports of the police receiving complaints from the public about the assault.30 However, following consultation with the victim, St Helen’s and the Rugby Football League, Greater Manchester Police31 confirmed that they would not be taking any action against Flower.32 The reasons as to why the police didn’t intervene in this case most likely would have been due to the swift actions of both the governing body and the club in punishing Flower and also that the victim didn’t want any criminal proceedings taken against Flower.

Football in the UK is another contact sport, similar in nature to Gaelic football that has been blighted from time to time with violent incidents. There have been numerous criminal prosecutions for assaults, some involving high profile players such as Duncan Ferguson and Chris Kamara. More recently, Luis Suarez has been at the centre of a biting controversy which landed him with a 10 game ban33 and also a fine from his club.34 Biting, punching or kicking, are all unrelated to the playing of the game and could result in criminal charges. The Suarez bite did lead the police to investigate the incident but no criminal charges were taken against Suarez.35

A recent ice hockey game involving a violent incident resulted in the aggressor being banned for 18 games by the league and also being sacked by his club as a result of the incident.36 This is quite a severe, yet necessary, punishment in a sport that is may be deemed more violent and physical than Gaelic football. Ice hockey also permits fighting to take place in certain conditions during matches. So for the player to be sacked and banned following this incident, which didn’t result in any injuries to the victim (in fact the victim won the fight) shows a strong response from not just the governing body but also from the club involved. While GAA clubs/counties cannot sack their players as they are amateurs, they can always drop them from their squads, effectively ending their playing careers with that team.

A recent example from an Australian Football League match, where a player punched an opponent resulted in a 3 match ban for intentional striking.37 A similar action under the GAA’s disciplinary code would result in a minimum 1 match ban as it would be considered a category III offence. Interestingly, the GAA has also encountered serious issues of violence during its international rules matches against teams selected from AFL clubs.38 The issue eventually reached a point where it was no longer in the interest of either code that games continue and they were suspended temporarily.

The two rugby incidents, the ice hockey fights, the Australian football league issues and the Suarez bite show that violent incidents are not just a problem for the GAA. What they do highlight, however, are the comparatively weaker disciplinary sanctions taken by the GAA. The reason for this may well be the lack of video and/or oral evidence (the Suarez incident and the two rugby incidents all occurred during live televised matches), but in the view of the author this alone is no reason for the weak responses.

Around the same time as the Suarez bite, Paddy McBrearty was allegedly bitten during a league match with Dublin. At the subsequent disciplinary hearing, the alleged perpetrator, who contested the charge, had his suspension dropped. The proposed penalty of 3 matches is very light in comparison to that imposed on Suarez, who for a similar incident received a 10 match ban as well as being fined by his club. While the ban was never actually applied, it is a much more lenient sanction, again highlighting the GAA’s weak stance on violence in games. The then President of the GAA, Liam O’Neill, claimed the reason it was dropped was due to a lack of evidence as McBrearty didn’t appear at the hearing.39 If players aren’t willing to appear before the disciplinary hearings having made the initial allegation, then there is little hope of the GAA providing effective disciplinary sanctions to eradicate violence from its organisation. As the sport is an amateur sport and its members are all volunteers, the GAA cannot compel members to appear before hearings of they choose not to. As mentioned above, since not all these games are televised there is rarely actual video footage available to the disciplinary body to review. This means that oral evidence is key in the majority of these cases and if players fail to address the disciplinary bodies themselves, there is very little in way of sanctions that can be brought against the alleged perpetrator.

A brief analysis of some Derry GAA County Board’s disciplinary decisions highlights the GAA’s lacklustre approach to violence within the current disciplinary system. James Conway, who was alleged to have broken an opponent’s jaw during a league match in 2009, was initially handed an 8 week ban which was later rescinded by the county board following an absence of solid evidence.40 In 2010, Eoin Bradley punched the referee after club championship match and received a 6 month playing ban and was also found guilty of assaulting the referee by Limavady Magistrates Court.41 Finally, another Derry player was in the first instance given a 48 week playing ban for comments made on social media.42 While the ban was later reduced to 8 weeks, it seems to this author absurd that a broken jaw would attract the least serious sanction compared to a push, which caused some reddening and comments made on social media. A problem with the disciplinary system in the GAA in general is the lack of availability of charges being brought against its members and the subsequent reasoning behind decisions arising from the disciplinary hearings. It would appear that Devlin was dealt with under Rule 7.2 (e), discrediting the association while Conway was more than likely originally charged under Rule 7.2 (b), Category 4, which deals with inflicting injury recklessly. Since the charges aren’t publicly available, it is impossible to tell for definite. While this is in accordance with the GAA disciplinary sanctions it begs the question, are the current sanctions fit for purpose?


Sporting consent in Ireland

Returning briefly to the relationship between sports and the criminal law: the boundary between actions that are contained to the rules of the sport itself, and actions that go above and beyond that to fall within the jurisdiction of the criminal law is an interesting topic, often referred to as the principle of implied sporting consent.

The principle behind implied sporting consent is that a player consents to certain acts and their resultant injuries that occur within the normal parameters of a sports match, such as a sliding tackle in football, a diving tackle in rugby or a shoulder to shoulder challenge in Gaelic football. If these acts occur during the game and result in injury then they may be considered part of the playing culture of the sport and therefore, criminal liability would not arise if any injury occurred. However, if acts occur outside of the normal rules of sport and an injury arises, then there is the possibility that criminal proceedings may follow. The general rule is that public policy dictates that there is a limit on what one can consent to.43 Implied sporting consent one exceptions to this.

The Irish position in relation to sporting assaults has yet to be examined above Circuit Court level and as a result there is no definite advice for the lower courts as to how to apply the principle of implied sporting consent. While the Law Reform Commission did make a recommendation when the law regarding assault was being updated in Ireland, the recommendation was not transposed into the statute books when the new legislation came into effect.44

The UK position is currently based on the long established principles of implied sporting consent in R v Bradshaw.45 The position on how the sporting exception to the general rules of consent should apply was clarified to an extent in R v Barnes,46 in which it was held that:

"The type of the sport, the level at which it is played, the nature of the act, the degree of force used, the extent of the risk of injury, the state of mind of the defendant are all likely to be relevant in determining whether the defendant's actions go beyond the threshold."47

While this guidance is helpful to objectively determining whether or not a players actions are criminal or not, LJ Woolf introduced the phrase ‘sufficiently grave’ when speaking about whether or not criminal prosecutions should be pursued. Unfortunately he failed to give any explanation as to what sufficiently grave constituted.48

The UK position in Barnes leans heavily on the Canadian position, which has been developed throughout the years as a result of numerous assault cases arising out of the sport of ice hockey. The leading case of R v Cey49 set out a similar set of guidelines as used in Barnes 15 years later. When determining whether or not an act goes beyond what can be legally consented to during a match one should have reference to the following:

"The conditions under which the game in question is played, the nature of the act which forms the subject matter of the charge, the extent of the force employed, the degree of risk of injury, and the probabilities of serious harm are, of course, all matters of fact to be determined with reference to the whole of the circumstances. In large part, they form the ingredients which ought to be looked to in determining whether in all of the circumstances the ambit of the consent at issue in any given case was exceeded."50



Should governing bodies really leave it to the criminal law to prevent and deliver justice in cases of violent behaviour in their sport though?   While there may always be incidences that fall within the jurisdiction of the criminal law, it is the view of this author that governing bodies should take a strong position against violent behaviour so as to deter it, and deliver justice in a way that allows players to feel that they don’t have to resort to the courts.

If the GAA is serious about eradicating violent incidents from its games, then in the view of the author they must come down harder on players who breach the rules, particularly in regards to violence otherwise players may well feel that they have no option but to begin criminal (or civil) legal proceedings. If this route is taken then the GAA may find itself continuously embroiled in controversy. The ability to hand down more stringent penalties is available to the administrators involved.

The publication of disciplinary results and reasons like in the English Rugby Football Union and the English Football Association, would also help to identify precedents that could help to reduce the inconsistencies and perceived lack of justice currently being administered. While it may not be possible to do this at club level due to the administrative burden it would impose on county boards, it should at least be trialled at inter-county level and such decisions could be available easily on the relevant body’s website. This would clearly outline how decisions are reached and also begin to develop a body of precedent that can then be applied in future cases.

This would be the first step in helping to improve the current disciplinary system. A revamp of the current rule book and sanctions available may also help to reduce the number of cases coming before the courts. If the players are satisfied that the GAA have dealt with the incident sufficiently, the victims may be more inclined to avoid the criminal justice system. While the Byrne incident is the latest in a long line of violent incidents in the GAA, it is now time for the GAA to act before more of its members are seriously injured.


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Daniel Watters

Daniel Watters

Daniel has a degree and masters in law. His masters thesis focused on criminal violence in sport and he is currently pursing a Ph.D. (part time) in Queens University Belfast examining the role of the criminal law in assaults in sports with a particular focus on Ireland and the GAA.

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