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Opinion: We as legislators have an obligation to tackle the scourge of sledging in sport

Shane Cassells addresses the rise of online ‘sledging’ – where one player shouts abuse at the other to make them angry – during sporting games.

Shane Cassells

“SCUMBAG” – JUST ONE of the words of former Dublin star Philly McMahon on RTÉ’s Prime Time recently as he recalled some of the things he was called on the field during a special programme delving into the world of abuse in the GAA.

The act of sledging – where one player taunts another with offensive remarks to make them angry – is now commonplace in many sports and it almost sounds half respectable when you compare it to hitting a lad a box in the head.

It is anything but respectable and it’s not new either.

But it is getting worse and what’s even more sinister is that you now have spineless keyboard warriors contributing to online discussion sites where they vent their spleen against players.

Trust me – any of these so-called keyboard warriors wouldn’t have the talent in their feet to take on the players they’re criticising and were probably no great footballers as kids.

‘Keyboard warriors’

So they are taking their anger out now using their fingers on a keyboard. One woman who was subject to vile online abuse recently was Wexford legend Ursula Jacob.

The four-time All-Ireland medal winner was one of the most talented camogie players that have ever graced Croke Park. On top of that, she is one of the most insightful commentators on the Sunday Game but some trolls took to online to past comments on her accent.

This strong Wexford woman didn’t take it lying down though and she hit back and shut the trolls down with a stinging statement.

Not everyone has the strength of character of Ursula or Philly though and neither of those stars should have to take this nonsense.

One suggestion Philly made was where trolls could be identified as members of the GAA and that their respective clubs take action through suspension and other disciplinary means.

As a former sports journalist, I am extremely conscious of the power of words.

When I was writing my match reports I always bore in mind the effort these amateur players had put in to get to this stage and that they were going back to work the next day.

I was never loose with adjectives when lads had done badly just to ‘sex up’ a match report. Would I have had the ability to do what they were doing on the field?

Tackling the issue

I have left my sports journalism days behind me and I am now a senator and spokesperson for sport for Fianna Fáil. This means I am in the lucky position to do something about this issue of abuse.

I am a member of the Oireachtas Sports Committee and last month we launched a report into the abuse suffered in sport by players and officials alike. In soccer it had reached the stage where last year 500 schoolboy games in Dublin were called off because referees went on strike as they downed their whistles over the abuse suffered.

One of our key witnesses during the hearings we held was CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, Mary O’Connor. The Cork woman is a former All-Ireland winner in both Ladies football and camogie (12 medals no less) and knows what it takes to compete on the field.

That winning mentality made her one of the most impressive witnesses I’ve ever seen in Leinster House. She handed a document of recommendations to the politicians in the room and said here is what you guys need to go and do.

Key proposals included stopping state funding to clubs where abuse was allowed to go unchecked and erecting codes of conduct at the entrances to grounds, which if breached would lead to ejection.

And when it came to online abuse she proposed getting all of the media outlets in the country to sign up to a charter for dealing with their own social media pages. O’Connor identified that a lot of abuse often happens around conversations initiated by national and local newspapers and radio stations in coverage of sport.

In tandem with this report, the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill has just passed in the Senate and this has established for the first time ever the office of an Online Commissioner. This Commissioner will have the power to take the social media giants to heel.

We are finally getting serious about tackling the regulation of the online space – and the days of allowing abuse to go unchecked are over. The keyboard warriors better have their helmets on because the senior hurlers are coming for them!

Shane Cassells is Fianna Fáil spokesperson for Sport and a member of the Media Committee.

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Shane Cassells

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