What the GAA is about. - 19/07/2005
Fantastic article by Tom Humphries. This is a good reminder what the GAA should be about and is about.
Eyeing the cash and losing sight of the ball
LockerRoom: So let's not talk about yesterday. Let's not talk about what went on down on the grass. Let's talk about what we talked about all last week. Let's talk about cash, baby.
First Mick O'Dwyer should be PRO for the next Lions tour. He slipped his little nugget about 10 grand into the luggage early in the week of a Leinster final. It kept us all diverted till we arrived in Croker yesterday. Hey presto. Pressure off, lads.
Myself, I'm a trembling observer of the GPA revolution. I'm all for players being looked after. I'd pamper them even. I get a little queasy, though, when I hear it said inter-county players are in some sort of sports purgatory. What with having to play ball for the county and being young and fit and famous and having to drink all those sports drinks and go on the team holidays. It's a regular Guantanamo Bay out there.
Lads, if it's that bad, if it's grief, well, give it up. Go back to the club. They'd love to see you. It's a choice. If you're going to play at a high level, do it because you love it.
When Clare got up early in the mornings and ran up the hill in Shannon 30 times till they puked and then bate hell out of each other at training, it was because they loved it. They wanted to elevate their sporting lives. That's inspirational. That's the stuff you tell kids about. Love. Not contractual obligations and the hunt for bonuses.
So why can we not see a big crowd in Croke Park without starting into this tedium about how that crowd might be milked and who should get the cream?
Why this pedalled illusion about modern stardom being the magnet which draws GAA crowds along like helpless little iron filings? Croke Park was full yesterday because generations gave their time and energy so that there would be a Croke Park, so that there would be clubs, and players reared in those clubs. They built traditions and histories and loyalties and it's a disrespectful act of ego for anyone to claim Croke Park gets filled specifically because he is playing.
Charlie knows. My eldest daughter's first hero in life was Charlie Redmond. He'd rub her head and say howya to her when he'd be coming off the pitch after training in Parnell Park. She'd beam back. Her day would be made. We loved watching the Dubs when Charlie played but we loved watching them when he stopped playing too. People in my family have loved watching the Dubs since early in the last century.
I spoke to Charlie during the week. He was talking about how nobody thinks of club players anymore. The pay-for-play thing came up. I'll quote Charlie:
"10,000 per man. I don't see it. There'd be a snowball effect. Bigger rewards. More professionalism. It would only be a matter of time before professionalism hit the club game. Fellas on contracts, disputes. I love going to Croke Park, I love seeing a fella going hell for leather, a hero in front of 70 or 80 thousand people and you can meet the same fella coming out of Croke Park with his gear bag on his back. That's the beauty of the GAA.
"All this stuff about fame and people coming to see you. It's seasonal. It goes. When you go your fame goes with you and you're an ordinary GAA man again and you have to appreciate what the GAA is."
That's it really. What the GAA is. When the roar of the crowd stops you're an ordinary GAA man. Or woman. You realise the GAA could survive without big days in Croke Park but it won't survive without the club and ordinary GAA people.
What happens when we start rewarding players because the games they play are popular? My other daughter has Ronan Fallon's signature on the front of her Dubs jersey. Ronan doesn't worry about slugging his sports drink when he's on the telly.
He hurls with the Dubs. He doesn't get to play in front of 82,000; he gets to play in a sequence of losing games that just seems eternal. The GAA needs more Ronan Fallons just as it needs more Mark Vaughans.
The players who get to play in front of full houses a few times during the summer are the tip of the iceberg, the minutest percentage of GAA life. They all have clubmates who do the work, give the hours, envy them and wish them well all at once.
It's sad for those who'd sacrifice a limb just for one big day out to hear from others that those big days are all an imposition which can only be relieved by the balm of money rubbed gently across the open palm.
What about clubs being rewarded for their players being on the county panel? What about the state of suspended animation club players are put into while the inter-county carnival goes on all summer? Anyone care? The GAA is a socialist collective. When the newspaper says the GAA cleaned up X million from a weekend of lucrative fixtures you know that's fine. Liam Mulvihill doesn't have a diamond earring and a cocaine habit. There's no new bling bling coming to some spoilt millionaire superstar. The money percolates. It buys coaches, development schemes, clubhouses, and a huge chunk of it goes back into county teams.
Top players can be rewarded beyond that. Lets not pretend they aren't already. They have profile. They sell us things. They wear particular brands of gear. Five of yesterday's participants appeared in the Herald on Saturday posing in Puma tops. Lads get GAA scholarships, holidays, jobs, expenses.
That's good and proper. How democratically the players share that new wealth will be interesting, though. Will the 30th man on the Leitrim hurlers get as much as the high-profile Dub footballer? Will the 30th man on the Dub panel? Money spawns elitism. The GPA's biggest battle will be in explaining things to the have-nots.
Meanwhile, there are entire areas of licensing and promotion the GAA should hand to the GPA on the understanding that all county players get a little piece.
The video-game fiasco was a case in point. Why not let the GPA and its techie partner develop the game and divvy the money? Give players their image rights, a cut of the replica-jersey action. Spare them the indignity of the conspicuous slurping of fluorescent drinks, etc. Ditto performance bonuses built into sponsorship deals.
Nobody minds players taking cash out of the corporates who stick their names on county jerseys and benefit most from high-profile runs. Big chunks of money already go from sponsorships to successful teams. The GPA's campaign for tax breaks for county players is well founded too.
Go for it. Let no player be out of pocket. Let them have a few perks. But let the rest of us get on with it knowing that inter-county players are happy and proud and sorted. Pay-for-play would kill the GAA in half a decade. Let's look for other ways to make our poor downtrodden inter-county players as happy to play in front of big crowds as we are to be among the big crowds.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Setanta and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. Setanta was talking about what it all meant. He said Donal Óg Cusack would often tell him these were special days. The togetherness, the comradeship, the sense of purpose all meant these were the times they would remember all their lives.
"That's a saying," said Setanta, "which would be Donal Óg's trademark."
"And what's Setanta's trademark saying?" I asked Seán Óg.
"Just give me the effing ball!"
Perfect. Togetherness, comradeship, a sense of purpose and just give me the effing ball. There's no need for us to exploit inter-county players and no need for them to exploit the general wellbeing of the GAA, their GAA. Don't mess with the ethos, lads.
Last week we lost sight of what makes the GAA great. It's not big days in Croke Park. It's what causes the big days. It's the loyalty of clubs and communities. It's celebration.
Nobody got rich in Croker yesterday. Everyone was enriched. That's how it is, how it was, how it should be