Colm Lyons calls foul on 'trolling' of referees
By John Harrington
Speaking at the announcement of the GAA’s plans for a national Respect the Referee day which takes place this weekend, 2022 All-Ireland SHC Hurling Final referee, Colm Lyons, called on the mainstream media to nail the perpetrators of on-pitch indiscipline rather than rush to criticise referees.
Lyons believes the mental health of referees is adversely affected by over the top criticism, both by 'trolls' on social media as well as those with a more traditional media platform.
“This mightn’t be popular but there are probably two elements that affect referees. Dr Noel Brick from the University of Ulster started this evidence-based research back in 2021 he’s talking about the welfare of referees.
"So the onus from my point of view is we have mainstream media, we have our media in the paper and social media. We also have our spectators who are also involved in social media who at times can put up negative tweets and make Facebook comments and that’s something that maybe isn’t monitored.
"There’s a lot of trolling that goes on about referees. The GPA had a report recently, Tom Parsons spoke about the impact of abuse on high profile players in terms of Division 1 games. That study hasn’t been done on referees. I’ve no doubt the figures would be actually higher for referees who have gotten abuse.
"I’d like to emphasise the positive feeling about refereeing. If you talk to referees they enjoy refereeing but I do think there has to be an onus on journalists to be less critical, turning the narrative around from ‘oh, the referee got it wrong’ to putting the onus on the player putting himself in a position to get a red card.
"That’s what I would like, our mainstream media journalism would step up a little bit and be more investigative and nail the perpetrators rather than blaming the referees."
At the Croke Park launch, Lyons revealed that 135 red cards were handed out in Cork club matches from U-19 to senior level from the months of March to September.
Of those, 20 were appealed with just six of those appeals successful. Lyons believes these statistics suggest two things – that most players accept they’ve been sent off correctly by referees, and that the GAA’s disciplinary process is a robust one.
Notwithstanding that, he believes some improvements can be made to the disciplinary process, most especially more fitting suspensions for those who physically assault referees.
“In fairness, the majority of players know when they have stepped out,” says Lyons. “Definitely the majority of players realise, 'do you know what? I'm putting my hand up here today, I'm out of order'. However there are certain situations where there is a greyness in the rule.
“In terms of those six appeals (in Cork), we're not privy to those appeals. And as referees, we don't really care.
“Our job is to ref it on the day, do a report. If someone asks us for clarification, we do a clarification. We do it with integrity, we do it with respect, and it's up to the hearings committee then to decide whether they back the player or they back the referee.
“And as you see, the majority of the time, the referee is coming out (vindicated). Does there need to be a tightening up of the process? Without a doubt.
“A maximum suspension of 96 weeks for someone who physically assaults a referee? Jesus lads, fellas get imprisoned when there's a physical assault!”
Communication is the key to mutual understanding, and Lyons believes it would be helpful if referees had the licence to explain decisions they have made in a match.
“At the moment, there probably isn't that protocol in place where I can come out and explain a decision,” he says.
“I met a local player there just by chance on Tuesday in a coffee shop. I had sent him off two months previously. And we had a conversation, and he understood why he got sent off, he understood why he was brandished with a red card. It was within his rights to appeal that decision. The appeal was unsuccessful. The hearings committee...it stuck.
“But it's all about communication. I think we can all do a bit better in terms of explaining decisions. I think most of the decisions stand for themselves. We'd be the first as referees to put our hands up and say 'look, we got it wrong'. Does everybody as a player, manager, coach, selector say 'we got it wrong'?
“Some will, some won't. I think referees, we're very open to improving. We want to come off that field and say 'Do you know what? There wasn't an incident there now that is going to cause us contention tonight'. Or if you're sitting down, 'Will we watch The Sunday Game? Will we avoid The Sunday Game?'
“In terms of impact, I'm a referee maybe for 20 years. I have family members who will pick up a paper. It does impact in terms of the overall... I think there is a duty of care to everybody in society to look out for everyone else. The mantra here is 'GAA, where we all belong'. And referees have to be central to that, and I would like to see the support structures, there's an improvement there in terms of that there is a better respect for referees.
“Going back to your question about a protocol, maybe that is something that will come out of this process. We have a strategic plan. One of the big pillars there is about improving supports for referees.
“The rugby, on-field decisions are contentious. They're reviewed [by] the TMO, and at the end of the day, they're in the biggest game of the recent past, the [question] was, was the Australian player time-wasting? Was the referee right or wrong? And they have TMOs. The soccer, they've brought in the VAR.
“There's always going to be comment on whether a decision is right. Nobody is from a neutral base. We're all coming from a different perspective. I think we have to have a tolerance of different perspectives.
“If I'm walking down the street as Colm Lyons in my civvies, why should I be treated any differently when I put on my referee's jersey? I should be treated with the same respect, the same tolerance that we would expect for anybody.”