Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Grants Will Only Make Worse the Plight of the Inter-County Player

The Irish Government’s approval of a 3.5M Euro grant to be distributed amongst inter-county players has raised serious concern amongst many people in the association. There have been high-level resignations, and meetings are taking place in opposition to the proposal, momentum is building against the notion and this cannot bode well for the near future. Some county boards have expressed outright opposition to the matter of financial compensation for players. The Gaelic Players Association is the driving force behind the changes, but the question as to whether it is for the better are very much debatable. The GPA was formed to give a voice to inter-county players. According to the GPA, players felt disenfranchised with the demands placed on them to compete at inter-county level and felt aggrieved at the treatment by official units of the GAA. Its mission is to enhance player welfare “in a dramatic fashion.” I doubt that many will disagree with these objectives given the time and effort put in by the association’s top-tier athletes.

The All-Ireland inter-county championships are the showcase of the association. They are what fills 80,000 seats in Croke Park multiple times each year, what generates revenue for the association to help meet it’s goals, what captures the imaginations of youngsters up and down the country and spawns a new generation of footballers and hurlers. They also contribute to the fabric of society in Ireland, to a sense of place and community. I recall a day when I met a friend of a friend at a festival in Canton, Mass. some years ago. I asked where he was from and his face lit up as if he was delighted that I asked the question, “Clare” he replied with a gleeful smile. I remarked that he seemed rather proud of the fact. “We’re coming out of the woodwork in droves since we won the All-Ireland!” was his answer. Taking care of inter-county players is of paramount importance.

The disenfranchisement that many inter-county players feel is easy to understand. The GAA is packing stadiums up and down the country as the popularity of the inter-county competitions continue to grow, money is being raked in all around by people with no direct, or even indirect participation, in the game. Merchandise is sold, TV stations generate advertising revenue, and sponsors and advertisers are all in on the act. All the while, the very reason so many turn up and tune in is because of the time and effort put in by the players who intensely prepare for championship competition for months, and the ultimate prize for them is an All-Ireland championship, nothing more and nothing less. The issue of “player welfare” should be near the top of the association’s agenda.

However, the most recent developments are not being viewed in the same light by what seem to be large sections of the association. The GPA could be making a serious misjudgment on this one, and the effect could end up exacerbating the very disenfranchisement felt by the players, and plunge the GPA and sections of the association into a never ending cycle of acrimony. The grants proposal might actually end up being a case of “Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.”

The very pressures that players are currently under due to demands “placed on them” to compete will most likely intensify now that money has entered the equation. Could it be that county boards and team managers will feel that they are justified in demanding more from the players since they are now getting paid? Will the very fact that players are going to receive compensation result on them putting more pressure on themselves in training and in games? Will the fans have less tolerance for inter-county players not performing to what they feel should be an acceptable level? The Cork goalkeeper was the butt of some bad jokes after last year’s All-Ireland Football final. Will the critique by reporters and commentators of errors and poor performances on the field be less forgiving than before the dawn of the grant? The bottom line is that players could very well find themselves under more pressure, and as a result feel even more disenfranchised. It would not seem to resolve the issues that the GPA itself says it was formed to address.

Balloting members to strike was the move that forced the issue with both the Government and the GAA. The Irish Government would hardly come out unscathed if a summer went by with no championships in the national sports. GPA officials and the GAA have said that the amateur ethos of the GAA will not be compromised by the grants, whom do they think they are kidding? Getting paid to play is getting paid to play no matter what you try to call it. If the focus continues to be on the money, then the GPA, the GAA, and the Government could all find themselves in a cycle of demands for more money and threatened player strikes. The GPA will continue to point to the increasing demands placed on the players, which will be the central factor in the cycle. None of this will do any good for the GAA, the players themselves – the parties that the grant was meant to help, or the supporters of the games.

The GPA may reflect on this point in its history and wish that the focus had been on alleviating the demands on the players and improving the treatment by county boards, rather than just focusing on “the money”. The GPA could have submitted a list of demands for limits on scheduled training sessions and minimum standards of treatment by county boards in relation to areas such as expenses, meals after training and games, access to physios, and coverage of injury related expenses and loss of earnings as a result of injury, and any other issue that the players themselves raise. Why not ballot members on the issues that they would like to see tackled on their behalf and present these to the GAA rather then a yes or no ballot to strike if funding is not put up?

Inter-county players do receive many fringe benefits as it is. They are receive national media coverage, they are heroes in their counties, some owe their jobs to their football careers, some receive benefits in kind from local businesses, some make a trip or two abroad to play and come back with far more than what they would get from the grant, some write books, some become renowned publicans (and of course name their pubs after themselves and do a healthy trade), some go into politics, some become pundits in newspapers and on television. It is not all suffering. Who that plays the game at any level has not dreamed of playing for their county in Croke Park in an All-Ireland final? Is not that the ultimate goal, the real reward that drives the top echelon of players to do what they do?

I was listening to an American sports talk radio show in my car where the topic of discussion was the Mitchell Report on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. The comments made by the hosts centered around the fact that sports are purely entertainment and that we are fooling ourselves if we think that there is any purity, innocence, or virtue in sport. These comments were made as an excuse for what has happened, beyond repair I might add, to sports in America. The hosts of the show realize that professional athletes are in it for the money, they take performance enhancing drugs so that they can get more money, and that by getting emotionally involved, the fans are being fooled. America’s national sport has long lost its innocence because baseball has become a vehicle for people to make money. Money is at the center of everything. The game itself is secondary. There is no soul left – or very little at best. Maybe these talk show hosts should go to Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day and it would change their minds. Emotion is everywhere. Fans are directly connected to the players. To see the anticipation, the emotion before, during and after the game, the unbridled joy of winning and the pain of losing – a pain not tempered by the soothing effect of a few million dollars. It is pure, it is innocent, and it is all about the game. Sam and Liam are why they play. The GPA, GAA, and Government should try to find a solution that keeps it that way.

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