The day after UFC 229, controversial GAA pundit Joe Brolly condemned the “bloody freak show” that is the UFC in his Sunday column. In his introduction, Brolly likened the sport to a grotesque scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, involving a barbaric brawl between two African-American slaves. He calls the sport the “ultimate pornography” of “extreme violence”, presented and marketed “like the violent video game market”. As he describes the programme from the event, Brolly demonstrates his blatant disgust at the utter vulgarity and mercilessness of the supposed sport. He does not see any sense in people viewing this violence as appealing.
This is the same Joe Brolly who talks about violence when reminiscing about his days playing Ulster football. In his column, Brolly often reflects on his halcyon footballing days, where fist fights and mass brawling were not only condoned, but widely accepted. It is telling therefore that Brolly cannot see the hypocrisy in criticising one sport for its organised chaos, while not admitting that his adoptive sport is equally as violent.
However, perhaps despite his intentions, Brolly has opened a debate on the levels of violence and poor conduct that permeate through the GAA. Gaelic games in general are rough, hard-hitting affairs. Not only are fights and scraps are common, but they are viewed as an integral part in the culture of the sport. Players often have fond memories of savage scuffles. One only has to do a quick search online to find hundreds of videos of fights at local games under sensationalised titles. It is not only about the player’s thirst for blood – in an article for Joe.ie, Conan Doherty sees being taunted and prompted to fight as “a question of my manhood”.
“The ultimate goal of the player is to not only play better than the man marking you, but also physically dominate them at every opportunity.”
Most of the institutional problems within GAA stem from perceived threats to a player’s masculinity and toughness. When donning the club or county jersey, a player must prove his strength on the pitch. Vulnerability, both physical and emotional, is unacceptable. A GAA player, for instance, is expected to be able to suppress their emotions and hide their physical fallacies; to do otherwise is weak and cowardly. The ultimate goal of the player is to not only play better than the man marking you, but also physically dominate them at every opportunity. This naturally results in plenty of skirmishes taking place all over the field, often as soon as the referee blows his whistle.
As a result, there is a certain mythology attached to these exceptional athletes. Much like Cúchulainn or Fionn Mac Cúmhail, GAA players are portrayed as godlike characters with incredible athletic ability, spectacular skill, and outstanding mental integrity. Players such as Aidan O’Shea and Diarmuid Connolly are heralded in this light, with a big emphasis on their dominance over opponents. There is very little reference made to their emotional stability or personal struggles. After all, to struggle to is to be vulnerable, and therefore fragile.
“It is an amateur sport – its players must balance an intense playing schedule with the other aspects of their life, such as work and education.”
Of course, one must remember that the nature of the GAA lifestyle does not afford players the facility to be emotionally expressive. It is an amateur sport – its players must balance an intense playing schedule with the other aspects of their life, such as work and education. Many of the players in Mayo’s county panel work in Dublin during the week and are forced to travel up and down to training sessions. This requires a serious level of dedication, so one can see why an extreme and concentrated toughness is necessary. In other words, there is no time to struggle with your feelings.
However, there is a massive difference between that type of toughness and the ability to knock the stuffing out of some player who has given you a dirty look. What is worse is that it is an accepted part of the game. In fact, there is a general feeling within the sport akin to Andy Warhol’s famous comment on art: “[It’s] what you can get away with.” That is to say, if the referee doesn’t see it, it’s fair game.
Fans of the GAA celebrate the fact that fighting is a central part of their sport. They defend this aspect of their game, often by comparing Gaelic games to other sports, usually soccer. Supporters mock soccer players and the farcical nature in which they are so easily injured in contrast to the strong, battle-hardened inter-county heroes who regularly carry on in games with broken bones and bleeding faces. This propaganda gives the impression that prominent violence is in the spirit of the game; therefore it can only be a good thing.
However, there is a less glamorous side to it that is often left to be forgotten. For every glorious victor in these brawls, there is always a badly-beaten loser. Recently, a photo was posted on Facebook of a young player competing in the Carlow Hurling Championship. The picture showed the player with a deep cut to his upper lip, black eyes, and dried blood around his red nostrils. Many other images and posts describe players with broken limbs, concussion, and other more serious injuries as a result of these brutal in-game fights. These are just regarded as occupational hazards.
There is a sense among players of collective responsibility within the GAA when it comes to backing your teammate. The ethics of teamwork and togetherness are implicated in these mass brawls. If a fight breaks out, it is seen as your duty to go in and give up your body to the overall cause, even if it doesn’t resolve the tension. Conan Doherty explains: “As unhelpful as it is to the overall situation, you go in and help. Otherwise, boys can tell you exactly the four players who didn’t go into the brawl. They are the names that are shamed. They’re the guys who basically abandoned you.”
“Expecting players to be so selfless would be unrealistic if it wasn’t so commonplace in the sport today.”
Surely there is a better way to demonstrate your honour than this callous, barbaric, and disgusting display. Expecting players to be so selfless would be unrealistic if it was not so commonplace in the sport today. The total disregard for player welfare is a troubling notion, which serves to show that the GAA sees the perfect player as a machine, with no capacity for emotional connection or human reason. It seems bizarre and counter-intuitive that parents see rugby as dangerous and unsuitable for children, instead sending their child to what they believe is the more wholesome sport of GAA.
It may seem harsh to single out the GAA in this way, as plenty other sports see violence spilling onto the pitch and the court. Even GAA President John Horan has shown regret towards the apparent recent surge in brawling in county matches, saying: “We cannot allow people to believe that they can behave differently than they would on the street just because they are wearing a jersey or a team tracksuit top or are attending a game.”
One must understand that projecting an image of toughness and loyalty are integral issues within the sport and sometimes they are manifest in these violent brawls. Perhaps the prevalence of fighting adheres to the character of the GAA player as an emotionless superhuman, who is judged only on his physical capabilities. But Joe Brolly needs to be reminded that when he criticises another sport for its grotesque violence, he is throwing quite a large stone in a particularly fragile glass house.