It’s the leading sports organisation in the country, administering the so-called indigenous sporting code.
Despite having little or no international element beyond its diaspora and having to compete fiercely at home with global codes, such as soccer and rugby, the elite level of the game is in remarkable commercial shape.
It has designed new, condensed formats of its game and exhibited them abroad.
The game’s central administration had faced criticism this year not only for meddling unnecessarily with the rules of the game but also for failing to address a decline in its grassroots game, particularly in areas of the country where the code was historically strong and deep rooted.
But that is enough about the Australian Football League (AFL).
This year the AFL has faced criticism for fiddling with unwanted regulatory changes while clubs in traditional heartlands burn with player decline, financial worries and administrative overburden on volunteers.
Lots of focus has been on the decline of AFL clubs in Tasmania, where rural clubs face difficulties familiar to many GAA clubs at home.
It is only when the impact of the decline hit the elite level — until this year, no Tasmanian prospect had featured in the top 10 AFL draft picks for 5 years — that the AFL began to react.
Most sports — GAA and AFL in particular — are organised like a pyramid. The elite at the narrow apex; the grassroots as the wide base. Structural decline at the base — like the AFL in Tasmania — affects the sport as a whole and no amount of TV money can patch up the pyramid. What the AFL is also learning is that when local clubs start to decline, particularly in rural areas, it’s difficult to reverse the process. And when the go; they usually go for good.
Footy clubs in Australia, similar to GAA clubs, are largely volunteer run, rooted in their locality and organic in culture.
They are also, as in the GAA, rooted in a 19th century idea of communitarianism which means replicating such clubs from scratch in the 21st century, where individualism is key, is almost impossible.
This year the GAA has faced criticism similar to that directed against the AFL.
Similar to the AFL executive, the default position with the GAA now appears to be to reflexively blame the “suits” in Croke Park for all the ills of the GAA.
Most of the time, this is unfair, and the recent targeting on social media of the chair of the Standing Playing Rules Committee (SPRC) Chair, David Hassan (a sports policy academic of international renown) has been as pathetic as it is predictable.
A prime example of how Croke Park can’t seem to win on issues is how the GAA’s success in investing in Dublin has been turned into a negative by some.
With the Dublin issue, the premise should be reframed away from the negative (we ought to act now to restrict Dublin’s dominance) to the positive (we ought to replicate what we did in Dublin in other parts of the country).
It’s a similar tale with the current focus of GAA ire: Rule changes in Gaelic football suggested by the SPRC.
Again, the problem is not really with the rules themselves but how the whole process has been framed. Might it have been better if the SPRC first asked and consulted on what type of game (of Gaelic football) the GAA community wants?
It appears the SPRC wants to encourage more kicking as one of the core skills of the game.
Until the GAA, through the SPRC, clarifies for itself exactly what type of game it wants, then piecemeal rule changes will likely end in pieces.
The question really then isn’t how many handpasses there are in the modern game but why there has been such a dramatic increase in handpassing over recent years. Answering the first “how” question leads you to the symptom but the answer to the “why” question would truly reveal the cause or illness.
As it is, and with no disrespect to the undoubted sincerity of the SPRC and the efficacy with which they have acted this year, but the rule changes are a sideshow to some of the bigger issues facing the GAA in 2019.
Let’s take two issues: Violence and club vs county fixtures.
At the recent media announcement of the SPRC’s rule changes, most senior GAA administrators were present.
We had PowerPoints, talk of data sets, and a warning about having to act quickly as the GAA can only entertain playing changes in a year “divisible by five” — as if some fundamental tenet of canon law was about to be altered.
Contrast this to the underwhelming reaction to the spate of violent incidents in club games during the Autumn.
No press conference, no data sets comparing how counties are punishing (or not) such misconduct.
No PowerPoint on possible changes to the rulebook which might allow greater intervention centrally. Apart from a generic statement by the president, nothing.
We have since been promised in vague terms by the Director General that some reform might be introduced at the next Congress to make counties more accountable in applying adequate sentencing.
The GAA’s ambivalent attitude to punishing violence was placed in stark contrast when last month the Combined Counties League banned three Mullingar Town FC players for 40 years each for an attack which hospitalised referee Daniel Sweeney.
Interestingly, the Combined Counties League also mandated three match officials must attend all of Mullingar Town’s matches for the rest of the season and that the club appoint an independent liaison officer to assist referees.
Both ideas might be something that the GAA might consider rather than meaningless time bans which are often “served” in the off-season.
That off-season for some inter-county players — in Leinster the 2019 O’Byrne Cup starts at the weekend — appears to be a thing of the past.
In the past, the criticism of GAA fixtures was that club competitions were sometimes let run into the following year. Now the trend is the opposite.
And so, while we fuss over whether a sideline ball can only ever go forwards; on fixtures, things are literally going backwards.
At times the GAA sweats the small stuff (training camps by inter county teams) and swerves the big stuff (payment of managers, club and county).
In this, the data set that is most important to the GAA currently is not really the number of handpasses in inter-county football, but the survey collated from clubs nationwide by the GAA’s own club committee (chaired by Mick Rock).
The results of that survey — finance and fixtures appear to be key areas of concern — and more importantly the plan to act upon the findings are to be revealed in detail at a specially convened club forum in Croke Park on Saturday.
As the AFL has learned from Tasmania, a decline in the health of clubs frays the very fabric of your sport’s DNA. Whatever about temporarily introducing an AFL-style ‘mark’ into Gaelic football, the GAA should permanently avoid AFL-style neglect of its grassroots.
Finally, and returning to the SPRC, in the unlikely event that my fellow academic David Hassan, SPRC chair, were ever to consult me on rule changes, I’d advise only this: David, please stay away from hurling. Hurling is fine.
Even Unesco thinks so.
Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne