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3 August 2015 Edition

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Who guards the guardians?

BETWEEN THE POSTS

Visibility brings increased transparency. The question remains whether this is matched by accountability

LEAVING the pitch at Pearse Stadium, Brendan Rogers looked agitated and dismayed. He had just been shown a black card. When he and his teammate Mark Lynch, captain of Derry, questioned the decision they were met with an abrupt retort. “I don’t have to explain myself to you,” said the referee. An hour later, Derry had been knocked out of the All-Ireland 2015 qualifiers by Galway and were on the long road home.

In every sphere of public life, accountability is a mantra. Yet nowhere is this is so deeply contested as in sport.

The rules of Gaelic games are only as good as those who make and enforce them. Those rules have undergone a monumental overhaul in recent years. Some changes have been inspired by a desire to speed up the sport and harness more support, especially abroad. 

Ironically, as public interest increases, so too does transparency in decision making.

Increased television coverage and use of social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Vine now mean instant replays and analysis of events in Championship matches. No longer do supporters of Gaelic games have to await the Monday morning newspaper. 

Visibility brings increased transparency. The question remains whether this is matched by accountability. 

Where players and managers are concerned, there is no shortage of commentators offering a public evaluation. Some post-match reports even carry ratings out of ten. Noticeably absent is any rating of match officials. Most county managers during this year’s championship demure from open criticism of referees, fearing official censure behind closed doors. 

After the match in Galway, unfettered by such restraints, Derry senior Gaelic football team manager Brian McIver bravely broached the conduct of match officials. Highlighting a series of match-defining decisions which tipped the outcome away from Derry, McIver asked to whom the referee is accountable: “Matches should be decided by players, not by referees.” His words met with assent not only by many of the reporters gathered but they were also widely supported on social media. The inconsistency of refereeing decisions in matches is a debate too long ignored.

While nothing should take away from Galway’s victory, the referee had a disproportionate influence on the outcome. As Derry forward Cailean Ó Boyle leapt to connect to a goal-bound ball he was pushed to the ground by his Galway marker. Irish Examiner sports reporter John Fogarty tweeted: “Derry penalty all day long.” Without so much as a word with umpires, penalty claims were brushed aside and, moments later, Galway returned serve with a great goal. A six-point turnaround in 60 seconds. 

If goals win games, penalty decisions impact too. 

A penalty was wrongly awarded to Kerry in the Munster Final against Cork. Some commentators praised the gamesmanship of Kerry forward James O Donohue for ‘creating’ the penalty. In any event, that penalty brought Kerry back to life. They forced a replay which they won to claim another Munster title. Of course, Louth will never forget, or forgive, the decision of the referee to allow the goal by Meath forward Joe Sheridan which cost the Wee County a Leinster football title.

In other sports the fallibility of adjudicators is increasingly recognised.

Rugby provides a Television Match Official (TMO) to help the referee make the right decision. A graphic example of this was in November 2013 when New Zealand beat Ireland in Dublin. It was a critical victory for the All-Blacks, capping an historic international campaign that year. It all came down to a try by New Zealand in the dying seconds of the match. Referee Nigel Owens called for TMO video replay of the final two passes in the phase of play to confirm they were lawful. He also permitted All Blacks kicker Aaron Cruden to take the conversion for a second time after missing it because Ireland illegally charged the kicker. TMO will be used extensively in the Rugby World Cup later this year.

In tennis, players have a quota of challenges against umpire calls. This uses Hawkeye technology, a decision-making aid now introduced to Croke Park to help to confirm points.

Bias in decision-making reliant on eyewitness testimony is something long recognised in other spheres, such as court proceedings. The eye sees what the mind perceives. 

Seeing players after Derry’s defeat by Galway is justification enough for a new system of accountability for match officials. Like their opponents, Derry had trained and prepared for months for this game. Huge personal sacrifices had been made. Derry midfielder Fergal Doherty made the 500-mile round-trip that day to play for his county before returning to his mother-in-law’s wake. Of course, referees are human too. They make sacrifices. But when they make mistakes, it’s the players who pay the price. That must change.

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