Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Referee's Rant

Recently a GAA referee called Willie Barrett was attacked by a fan while officiating at a hurling match in Tipperary. The incident was captured on a mobile phone and now is available on youtube.

Increasing violence directed towards referees both on and off the pitch has been a feature of soccer in particular but also Gaelic and increasingly rugby union.

In August 2002 South Africa's Tri-Nations clash with New Zealand in Durban was thrown into chaos when a fan attacked the referee.The two sides were locked at 17-17 early in the second half when a fan wearing a Springbok shirt ran on to the field and tackled Irish referee David McHugh.

The fan - 46-year-old Pieter van Zyl - was escorted off the field by stewards but McHugh was taken off in a motorised cart clutching his shoulder and was unable to continue.

As a former referee I felt very strongly that not enough was done to protect referees from players or spectators by way of sanction and this led to considerable frustration. The following letter is one I penned to the President of a Dublin rugby club following a match I officiated in 2004. It is long winded and I never received either a reply or an apology, which says something about the how the sport itself was been run at the time. Thankfully at senior level there have been significant improvements in the behaviour, thanks in the main to video and television, and also to the facility afforded clubs and officialdom to conduct a ‘post-match’ citing if technology has picked up on serious incidents. There still are significant concerns for the way the game is coached at a junior level however and like soccer encouraging teams to continuously question the referee is a terrible precedent.

I have deleted the name of the club involved lest even at this remove I be accused of slander or libel.

31 October 2004

xxxx xxxxx Esq.,
A Rugby Football Club,

Dear Mr xxxxx,

From the outset I would like to emphasise that I am writing to you from an entirely personal standpoint. I am not sure why I feel so strongly, feel so driven to do so but do so I must.

I had the pleasure on Saturday, 30th October, and I mean this sincerely, of officiating at the Connemara v ‘A Rugby Football Club’ AIL fixture in Clifden. The match had the intensity, tribal rivalry almost, normally associated with an inter-parish, or inter-town match but, of course, played with a level of skill, fitness and tactical nous of players who take their rugby very seriously indeed. That said, there are a number of concerns, which I feel warrant an airing, if only by way of expressing a perspective which perhaps is at odds with others but also, sadly, recognising that in the very volition of raising them will perhaps create misunderstanding as to any agendas that I might have. There are none!

I fully understand the pressures of organising, financing and encouraging a club with the history and aspirations that ‘A Rugby FC’ have (my brother Paul, is director of rugby in Cork Con) and there are people like you (and him) who have put in far more time and effort than I have been able to, who deserve the real credit for sustaining the game in very difficult economic circumstances.

However, I do feel that this determination, this desire to survive, to succeed, must not be to the detriment of what it truly means to participate or indeed, to have the grace to win and lose in equal measure. This is perhaps far too aspirational. Sport has long become what war once was, what war can still be. Humanity has always been innately violent, whether genetically programmed or as a response to external pressures is debatable, and the hope that sport would be a catalyst for a dampening of these tendencies is tenuous at best. In ancient times the Sa-Gaz (literally ‘head-smashers’) mercenaries employed by the Sumerians undertook for pay, the violent duties declined by the city dwellers of the first ‘civilisations’ and the meaning of their lives, literally their lives, depended on their ability to win or lose. In the modern rugby era a similar demand to succeed has meant succumbing to the criteria laid down by the value system, both playing and coaching alike, of the professional mercenary ‘rugbiest’. As with all mercenary endeavours however those values, those codes of conduct of the mercenary – or lack of thereof - are alien, imported, accepted, sanctioned, by the employing authorities because somehow these authorities believe that to defend themselves, to conquer their ‘enemies’, these values are necessary, their alien nature creating confusion, fear in the ‘enemy’. Both employers and mercenary alike recognise the transient and dispensable nature of this relationship and in equal measure dispense with the formalities of civility in pursuit of conquering, winning or ‘glory’.

This was particularly evident during the AIL match. If a ‘fear of losing’ at all costs comes to dominate the game, and that fear is mutated to a blame placed at another person’s door then we have all failed. If, at club level, violence is sanctioned as a virtue, or thuggery given tacit approval, or malice intended with prejudice condoned, then ‘winning’ a game, any game, is pointless, regardless of the legacy, the desire, the determination of any club. My primary responsibility as an official is to uphold the Laws of the game, but more importantly my primary duty is to ensure that these mercenary value systems, this so–called acceptable behaviour – understandable, necessary, coached, whatever – and conduct does not result in injury to other players; a responsibility that I refuse to apologise for.

One simple example of this attitude was when one of your players, sin-binned for dangerous play, was refused re-entry to the field because 10 minutes of ‘playing time’ had not elapsed. In games where there is not an automatic clock controlled by the referee then the assistant referee must take into account any injury time that has elapsed during the period of the ‘sin-binning’ in order that the full sanction intended by the notion of ‘sin-binning’ is enforced. The player failed to understand this instruction and proceeded in front of supporters, adult men, women and children, to loudly call me a ‘cunt’. Leaving aside my understandable distaste, given my profession, of the derogatory and demeaning word used so publicly and loudly I also felt that the use of language was unnecessary and puerile. At another point I had to remonstrate with the coaching staff to tone down their foul and abusive language from the sidelines, because they were in full hearing of all people attending.

Let not this ‘foul language’ commentary be misunderstood. In another life I am a published novelist, and publisher, and employ the use of colloquial language to effect but always with a care to who the writing is aimed at. It is more that the notion of standards, a sense of where they were at, of what example they are setting is completely discarded -under the mercenary value system of players and coaching staff - in this era of ‘winning at all costs’. I don’t suppose many people share this level of indignation, this reflection on a greater danger, but I do. We have long seen the effect of ‘anarchy of conduct’ in soccer and increasingly, in Gaelic football, and I feel the fight to hold onto what we have in rugby football, is worth that fight.

One final reflection: Following the match, while standing outside King’s pub in Clifden, two of your players confronted me with the accusation that the only reason I was an official was that I was a ‘failed’ player and therefore an embarrassment to the game.

On the journey home this comment made me think. By what or whose criteria in rugby does a participating individual become a ‘failed’ anything? In war, in survival, the criteria are probably obvious. In sport it can only ever be an approximation but it would be naïve of me, however, if I did not acknowledge that increasingly within rugby, at playing, coaching and officiating levels, there are such criteria and by their very nature ultimately deny the beauty and belittle the ideals of participation over ‘winning’.

Do I ever consider participating as referee an act of failure, or an embarrassment to the sport, to the notions of humanity? In a small way I have, given the demands of my profession, tried to enhance and maintain participation in rugby football. I have been a referee for 26 years, since starting with the Munster Branch in 1978 and although the judgement of whether I was, am, a good official is for others to decide, like everyone I have good days and bad, but that when those days end, and, they soon will, I will be saddened. I am not a mercenary; I do not claim expenses for either local or AIL matches; but that, it seems, is not enough any more.

Did my decision to participate in refereeing, while Hon Sec of UCC RFC all those years ago, while also playing for the University soccer team, to a Munster Branch request for somebody (anybody!) from the University club to be a referee forever render me a ‘failure’, forever engender in the game my participation a source of embarrassment? Perhaps it did but if personal satisfaction and enjoyment is a by-product of that ‘failure’ then yes, I have failed, and failed gloriously.

For what it’s worth from this ‘failure’ in the game I felt it necessary to reflect on something beyond myself, beyond my understanding. There is, I feel, an atmosphere, a condition, a malaise even, within the ‘A Rugby FC’s’ camp, which will, unless addressed, in the end negate enjoyment, stunt participation and ultimately leave a tainted legacy, albeit perhaps a victory.
Who really cares?

With best wishes,

Roger Derham.

c.c. xxxx xx xxxxxx, Coaching Co-ordinator.

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