That age-old question gets another airing in Carlow this weekend as the annual Congress delves once more into the issues of player burnout, overuse injuries and possible solutions to these perennially thorny challenges.
Of the 65 or so motions on the agenda this weekend, the reaction to motions 4 and 5 dealing specifically with the minor and U21 grades at inter-county level only, will get the most attention. But the not unrelated motion number 7 is just as significant. That motion proposes that All-Ireland football finals be played on the first Sunday in September, with the hurling final to be played two weeks prior to that.
Although it may seem just a minor tweak, the aim of motion 7 is to create more space for playing club games in the month of September. Many of the much maligned ‘suits’ attending Congress today will know that even such a small change could make a big difference when planning a comprehensive fixtures list at the start of the year that suits the other 98% of the GAA playing population who don’t have a recognised players body to advocate on their behalf.
The fact that the GAA has published eight documents that deal with either player burnout or fixture congestion in just over a decade speaks volumes about how concerned its membership is about both issues.
Yet when a Wexford motion to give a month’s extra training time to U21s by “rolling back the commencement of training for U21 footballers from 1st January to 1st December” came before Congress just two years ago it received 60% support, just short of what was required to make it happen.
At the same 2014 Congress, a Monaghan motion that suggested raising the lower age limit for senior to 17 and changing the minor grade to U17 was withdrawn. The proposal reappears this time out in a different form and from a different source. It perhaps goes to show that if an idea has merit and is allowed time to germinate, it will eventually find its way through the labyrinth of Congress and onto the playing fields. We shall see.
One of the most thought-provoking contributions of recent Congresses came from former Uachtarán Liam O’Neill in 2014, who addressed the reform of one of the staples of the GAA season, Féile, the U14 games festival. When O’Neill expressed the belief that Féile had become “too intense and elitist”, he triggered strong reactions but his argument resonated with many.
The former president contended that Féile was being treated like an ‘All-Ireland championship’.
“It is not a championship. It’s a competition where fun and personal development should come first,” he said.
Two years down the line, Liam O’Neill’s contrarian view is even more relevant. Everywhere we look now we see a zero sum game. Our games once regarded as a healthy pursuit have been overwhelmed by the notion that winning is all that matters. Anybody who has children will tell you that kids are as competitive as any animal in the GAA jungle. Indeed, they might as well be if they want to understand modern sport and to thrive in the modern GAA.
We know almost instinctively from an early age that winning is a lot better than taking part, and if you doubt that you should referee an informal schoolyard game and see how often you get asked what the score is.
True, some animals are more competitive than others, but we should be careful to differentiate between being competitive and being narrow minded and self-serving.
In this context, I found it strange that much opposition towards motions 4 and 5 came from my own county of Kerry. I understand that the thinking behind Kerry’s resistance was that the new arrangements would put U16 players, and most likely Junior Cert students, into the new U17 competition.
It was also argued that 18-year-olds should have an outlet for inter-county football. On that basis Kerry came down on the side of the status quo. It is quite apparent that Junior Cert and Leaving Cert are poles apart in terms of the demands they place on young students’ time and, of course, the whole idea is about exempting 18-year-olds from playing county football as much as possible at a hectic time in their young lives.
Most of the hoary criticisms of Congress are valid. As a body it does appear too unwieldy to make decisions at the necessary pace and too democratic for its own good. Congress seems to be too fuzzy in its approach to come to sharp and clearly defined conclusions. While it is still the best mechanism we have to effect change and the best forum we have to debate the merits of the status quo, I sometimes wonder if more would get done if Ard-Stiúrthóir Pádraic Duffy assumed the role of a benevolent dictator.
One of the more irksome aspects of recent Congresses has been the stubborn refusal of delegates to take on board well thought out advice of work groups, committees and Duffy himself.
The people giving this advice to Congress usually bring a huge amount of specialist expertise with them and have almost always given their time and efforts in a voluntary capacity to make things better.
I recognise too that the GAA delegate is a breed apart and that the organisation depends for its survival on the delegate’s diligence, doggedness and voluntary spirit. But the delegates’ refusal to accept clear minded and useful reports and recommendations just never made sense to me.
The current approach seems akin to getting an expert diagnosis on, for example, your eyesight issues and then going down to the parish hall to ask the community if you should indeed follow the course of action prescribed by your opthalmologist.
And if the boys down the parish hall don’t agree with the diagnosis, then to hell with the opthalmologist.
The most glaring example of this phenomenon is Duffy’s report, “GAA Amateur Status and Payments to Team Managers”. It is hard to believe that the biggest issue facing the GAA hasn’t been addressed by Congress in the four years since it was released.
Shortly after its release, the GAA Management Committee examined the written responses of all 32 counties to the discussion paper. The upshot of it all was summarised in a statement from Croke Park: “In their submissions the vast majority of counties advocated the implementation of the Association’s existing policy, rules and guidelines on its amateur status.”
There was talks of “engagement of external expertise to assist in the development of procedures and actions to give effect to such implementation.” But very little has been heard since.
If the GAA is to remain the progressive, confident, and democratic sports organisation that it believes itself to be, somebody, somewhere is going to have to address the elephant that should have been in the hotel room in Carlow this weekend.
Most of the hoary criticisms of Congress are valid. As a body it does appear too unwieldy to make decisions at the necessary pace and too democratic for its own good