Carl Kinsella | Sports Editor
In 1924, the GAA announced their firm intention to leave politics at the door for fear it could split their association. This decision made a great deal of sense. Ireland was a nation waiting for the gun-smoke of the Civil War to subside, and societal order hung by a thread so bare and taut that violence threatened to resume at the merest tug. The country’s current political atmosphere is much calmer by comparison. It is with this in mind that the GAA’s decision to prohibit referee David Gough from wearing a rainbow armband in support of equality last week is both baffling and frustrating.
A spokesperson for the GAA offered the explanation that the GAA is “a broad church with a lot of different views” and that “you leave your politics at the door”. It is hard for any sensible person to be satisfied with this rationale for prohibiting the wearing of a rainbow armband. The rainbow, after all, is not itself a political symbol. It is a personal one. It is not a direct show of support for any political ideal such as marriage equality. The LGBT rainbow, rather, is an emblem of identification and pride in one’s sexuality, much like the crest on a jersey is a show of pride in one’s club or county.
Mr. Gough clarified that his intentions in wearing the armband were twofold. He sought to show support for the Yes side of the upcoming Marriage Equality referendum, as well as to draw attention to the prevalent issue of homophobia in sport. The first of these goals is implicit, while the latter is explicit – and this is a key difference. In this instance the GAA has positioned itself as unwilling to allow for the communication of broad messages, such as the belief in equal rights for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, as these broad messages can contain implicit support for political movements.
Last week, the GAA was presented with an opportunity to lead or to hide, and sadly it chose the latter. An ever-present institution that consumes our weekends, reaches into our classrooms, and circles every office water cooler, the GAA has an almost unique ability to take the mantle and do all it can to establish an atmosphere of open inclusivity for its community that, thus far, soccer and rugby have failed to provide. That is not to say that any of these sports are utterly inhospitable to anybody outside of the hetero-normative standard. It is merely to say that labelling your sporting organisation ‘apolitical’ in the face of issues that are affecting some of your fans, your players and your managers on a deeply personal level is neither prudent nor pragmatic. In fact, when another would-be outlet for pride in one’s marginalised culture rules itself out of the game, it simply compounds the problem.
Of course, it is not hard to understand the reasoning behind the GAA’s stance. From a PR point of view, the GAA would rather not be at the heart of a debate that would no doubt see its share of outdated or inflammatory remarks made by fans, or perhaps even those more closely connected with the sport. Such a debate, however, is exactly what is called for. Such a discourse could expose the antiquated attitudes so prevalent in sport that keep it mired in machismo.
Take for example the GAA’s policy of Inclusiveness in its Strategic Vision and Action Plan, which omits any mention of sexual or gender identities. It states that ‘The GAA is an organisation that welcomes everybody and respects people of all nationalities, religion, ethnicities, ages and abilities’. This blanket, unfortunately, is not quite wide enough for the bed. There is no doubt that quite a furore would ensue were players to be prohibited from acquiring visible tattoos of a religious iconography, or banned from thanking God in a post-match interview, despite the possible political connotations that come with such attachments. It is easier, however, to clamp down on expressions of identification with a minority group that is cruelly under-represented in each and every sport.
We should be disappointed in organisations like the GAA when they seize opportunities to stifle expressions that are inclusive and progressive. All it really amounts to is sitting on the fence between the right and wrong side of history.
In the English Premier League, we have seen teams warming up whilst wearing ‘Kick It Out’ t-shirts in an expression of anti-racist sentiment. Similarly, we see Kick It Out’s message emblazoned in LED lights all around Premier League pitches. If such a movement tried to infiltrate the GAA, would the GAA remain steadfast in its ‘apolitical’ stasis? An implicit political corollary to the belief that people are equal regardless of skin colour is that the law should not discriminate based on race. David Gough is a one-man mirror of the Kick It Out movement, armed only with an armband. If the GAA is so certain that it supports the equality that David Gough was trying to fight for, it would not turn its back so quickly on an opportunity to take a leap forward. It will remain essential that men like David Gough wear their beliefs on their sleeve for as long as our institutions refuse to wear their so-called beliefs with any pride at all.