The players’ grants issue is continuing to generate plenty of debate: there’s John Maughan reminiscing about what things were like in the good old days when he had a full head of hair, there’s PJ McGrath saying that refs should be ahead of the players in the queue for payments, there’s An Spailpin fulminating about the GPA’s motives and drawing apocalyptic comparisons with Welsh rugby, there’s Sean Rice huffing and puffing about the GAA being on “the road to ruin” and, in the other corner, there’s Colm O’Rourke making the point that payments to managers – the widespread practice within the GAA that still dares not speak its name – will continue to cost far more than the grants to players will and that, in terms of getting some financial recompense, the players have come to the table very, very late.
Anyone who has read any of my previous posts on this issue will know that I’m in firmly on the Colm O’Rourke side of the debate. While PJ McGrath is technically correct when he makes the rather facetious point that there would be no games without the ref (when, in fact, the ref in Gaelic football isn’t always where you expect him to be: where was he, for example, when he was needed last May in Salthill?), it’s the players who produce those moments of magic that we all treasure and who keep us coming back each year in anticipation of witnessing more of the same.
All players put in significant effort but it’s obvious that it’s the elite performers – those who reach inter-county standard – who sacrifice most, in terms of the ongoing commitment they make and the way in which many of them effectively put their work careers on hold for the duration of the time they spend at inter-county level. This is especially the case in the modern era: one time being a county player might have saved you from the boat whereas now, where there’s plenty of work but most of it comes with fairly relentless pressure to perform, county players often have to sacrifice opportunities to get ahead in their careers just to ensure that they have the requisite time to devote to wearing the county jersey.
So being an inter-county player involves making hefty sacrifices, often for many years. But by doing so, they create all the action (call it the “product” if you like) that people pay good money to see, which many of the most prominent companies in Ireland pay significant sums to get their names associated with and the TV rights to which the GAA is increasingly able to monetise. Let’s be clear: it is the inter-county players who create virtually all of the value that enables the GAA to rake in this money.
Before the GPA came on the scene, inter-county players were treated, by and large, very poorly and many of the advances in player welfare can be attributed to the poking and promptings of Dessie Farrell and his compadres. Likewise, the players’ grants issue – the genesis of which was a Government initiative for those involved in top-class sport in general – would never have come to fruition without the GPA. What did the GAA do in the hundred years and more before the GPA came along to improve the lot of players? That’s right: they did chuff all and they’d have continued to treat the players in the same despicable manner had not the GPA forced them to change their tune.
Like Colm O’Rourke, I’d have some sympathy with the concerns people have about the drift away from the community ethos within the GAA but, like the Meathman, I’d be loathe to saddle the players’ grants issue with all of the blame for what is just another example of how Ireland has changed in recent times. Homepsun tales about Missus Mac baking her rock buns for the team and Josie washing out the jerseys are all fine and dandy but they’re not in any way relevant to the debate about extremely modest grants being provided to inter-county players. Rule 11 remains intact and the GPA have stated publicly that they support its retention. Even if they didn’t, there are more than enough backwoodsmen in positions of power within the GAA to ensure that the status quo remains intact for many years to come. Look at how long it took to get a perfectly reasonable and sensible proposal such as opening up Croke Park to get ratified: just how long do you think it would take to get a two-thirds majority for the scrapping of Rule 11?
In any event, all this John Hinde ass and cart stuff about how great things worked in the old days is a bunch of horseshit: looking to the past to provide answers for the future is rarely a good option. It has echoes of the bone-headed attempts by successive Irish Governments up to the Sixties to promote agriculture as the engine of growth within the Irish economy. All that succeeded in doing, as Tom Garvin has so rightly pointed out, was to delay by decades the eventual arrival of prosperity in Ireland.
The amazing thing, when you think about it, is how much the community ethos within the GAA has – in this post-Celtic Tiger Ireland – remained intact, in much the same way that it’s somewhat surprising that Church attendances are still as high as they are after all that’s come out over the past fifteen years. Community involvement in the GAA has survived in the face of the huge changes that have place within the country over the past twenty years, including the significant drift towards a more commercial outlook in all aspects of the GAA itself, from sponsorship to the gleaming new Croke Park. These paltry grants to players are just one more facet of this. They do not represent nor can they seriously be portrayed as Armageddon for the GAA.
And they don’t mean we’re on the cusp of an age of professional gaelic football (or hurling) either. For fuck’s sake, where is the money going to come from to sustain two professional codes on an island of just under six million people? Unlike the Premiership, the GAA will not earn megabucks from selling the rights to its games all over the world and so, with limited enough income from gate receipts and sponsorship, there’s clearly not going to be a massive pot of money to sustain a professional GAA. It’s simply too small in scale and with the increasingly unworkable and unfair championship structures in both hurling and football, it’s not as if the GAA has got a wonderfully dependable product to pimp.
In this context, the comparisons with rugby might seem to be more apt but any perceived likeness is, IMHO, more apparent than real. The organisation of rugby, no more than soccer, is a very different kettle of fish compared to gaelic football and hurling. Like soccer, it has both a club and an international dimension and it has a major money-spinning European competition keeping it going in this part of the world. I’m not convinced that the misfortunes currently facing rugby in Wales or elsewhere can easily be transferred to the GAA, where professionalism on the level seen in rugby simply can’t, given the simple arithmetic, happen. The extremely rigid rules about players transferring allegiance from one county to another also militate against such a development. As Tommy Conlon points out, this rule – which has been in place for over 120 years – effectively means that players are chained to their roots ensuring that, unlike in almost all other sports, the very best players aren’t always allowed to rise to the top. That, however, is one for another day.
For now, with Saturday’s Central Council vote behind us, the issue has been resolved from the point of view of the GAA. Those poor, holier-than-thou souls on county boards up and down the country can rest happily that they won’t have to dirty their hands dishing out the filthy lucre to the players (they can continue to concentrate instead on paying their managers) and can convince themselves that they’ve fought the good fight to preserve all that is good about the GAA. Well done, lads: not for the first time, you’ve done the country some service.
Meanwhile, the players will continue to bust their asses in preparation for the new campaign and I doubt very much that, in doing so, they’ll give all that much thought to the modest amount of dough they’ll get at the back end of the year. Like every other year, it’s the silverware, the medals and the chance to make history for their county of birth that’ll be uppermost in their minds. And in ours too, I reckon, once this storm in a teacup finally abates.