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Latest ban shows how personal responsibility is key for players

With high turn-over rate on inter-county squads, it is up to individuals to be aware of what is allowed but the education from GAA is vital to make sure there is no confusion

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PUNISHMENT: Carlow’s Ray Walker has received a four-year ban which he has accepted. Photo: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

PUNISHMENT: Carlow’s Ray Walker has received a four-year ban which he has accepted. Photo: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

PUNISHMENT: Carlow’s Ray Walker has received a four-year ban which he has accepted. Photo: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

In his final annual report as GAA director-general to 2018 Congress, Paraic Duffy floated the idea of a system whereby a player would be prohibited from playing for his county until he had certification that he had completed an acceptable anti-doping programme.

Duffy's comments focused on improved education in the wake of the case of Kerry footballer Brendan O'Sullivan who had served a 21-week ban, in two phases, after his decision to appeal for inadvertently taking a banned substance in a caffeine supplement which he had sourced himself.

Report

At the time of their report the Irish Sports Council, who oversee testing, were critical of education relating to GAA players, noting "confusion" over the flow of information to the player who, they determined, bore "no significant fault or negligence."

Duffy felt the "fluctuating composition" of inter-county panels made it a matter to be "addressed urgently" by the Association.

"It is not unusual for a player to join a panel after the competitive year has begun; in such a circumstance, it is all too easy for a player to miss out on the briefings that usually take place in the weeks before the start of the Allianz leagues," he wrote.

It was a point picked up by the Carlow footballer Ray Walker in his statement yesterday as he accepted a four-year ban, without admitting intentional wrong-doing, for a failed test in February.

Since he rejoined the Carlow squad last November until the time of his test in February, Walker claimed that he had not received any anti-doping education or training.

The three-month timeframe was narrow, but still, mandatory certification, even on an annual basis, that an education course has been completed, and where the message of player responsibility to check everything before consumption is paramount, would help to offset that recurring education question that has popped up now after every such case.

After the first of the three cases in 2015 of a failed test by an inter-county player, the GAA sought to increase education awareness by developing a tutor system with the intention of having a Sports Council-trained tutor in every county.

The GAA still lives with the perception, though, that it is not serious enough - something it has consistently rejected as Dufy emphasised in that final 2018 report - when it comes to anti-doping measures, but the existence now of a third failed test in six seasons will add some fuel to that.

In the past few years, they and the Gaelic Players Association has been at odds with the Sports Council on a couple of anti-doping related issues.

The Sports Council felt that because the GAA are the governing body and the GAA's anti-doping hearings committee decides if a violation has been committed, paying a player's legal expenses presented a conflict of interest.

Adamant

But the GAA's Management Committee were adamant that a player couldn't have a fair hearing without costly legal representation and as amateurs this had to be funded.

In 2018, the GPA had issues with making players' home addresses available to the anti-doping unit for 'intelligence' purposes, with the Sports Council threatening to withhold grants until the matter was resolved.

But those who oversee the anti-doping programme have consistently seen the Gaelic games as 'low-risk', making the assumption that with little or no financial rewards the temptation to seek performance-enhancing drugs is not there.

Ironically, Walker's statement was made on the same day that the Irish Sports Council released its annual anti-doping report where Gaelic Games, with 135 tests in 2019, are behind Cycling Ireland (218), IRFU (196) and Athletics Ireland (154) in the number of tests conducted in their sport.

According to data, 40 'in competition' tests were carried out on GAA players with a further 72 out of competition tests and 23 blood tests.

That's down from 135 last year but up substantially from what it was five years ago.

Could the GAA be doing more themselves? The area of education remains an ongoing challenge as squads change from year-to-year and even month-to-month.

Even the Sports Council acknowledged in yesterday's report that it was "a challenge to ensure that every athlete in every sport understands fully both their responsibility to compete clean and also how they can ensure they are actually doing so.

Challenge

"We can only meet that challenge through the provision of widespread athlete education."

The idea of certification has much merit.

Increased testing is another area, though the numbers are determined by the Sports Council Anti-Doping, not the Association itself. The GAA has not signed up to the 'user pays' programme that the Sports Council operates, allowing sports federations, as the title suggests, to pay for their own additional testing. For some, an increase would represent an inconvenience to amateur sportspeople. but many of those athletes whose federations are signed up the anti-doping programme are amateurs too.

When the national governing body and its athletes are in receipts of State funding, it goes with the territory.

The desire for a clean sport is in the interests of everyone involved. The GAA has up to 2,000 athletes in receipt of funding. According to the 2016 ESRI report, less than one in four of those who responded to the survey that formed the basis of 'Safeguarding amateur athletes: an examination of player welfare among senior inter-county Gaelic players' had undertaken an anti-doping test.

With a turnover rate from year-to-year of around 30 per cent in inter-county squads, that figure shouldn't be taken out of context.

Many aren't on a squad for long enough to be test candidates.

By by now for anyone who is, even in the lower divisions, the penny should have dropped as to the requirement for everything consumed to be verified methodically.

Personal responsibility is paramount.