Colin Sheridan: GAA must now protect Sigerson Cup, the last bastion of hipsterdom

Colin Sheridan: GAA must now protect Sigerson Cup, the last bastion of hipsterdom

UCC’s Diarmuid O’Connor scores a penalty against UCD in the Sigerson Cup last week. Inter-county footballers who wish to play college football need to be protected and allowed to do so, otherwise the competition will perish. Picture: Inpho/Tom Maher

On January 10, senior Stetson Bennett IV led the Georgia Bulldogs in their upset of first ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship. The game was played in front of 62,000 spectators in Indianapolis, as well as a TV audience of over 22 million people.

Although Stetson was the offensive MVP, it is unlikely he will ever play in the NFL. He entered college as a walk-on — a student athlete who is typically unrecruited and without a scholarship — and is likely to depart just as quietly.

He will forever have his championship ring, but outside of Bulldog Nation, few who watched the game will remember him. That’s the beauty and the beast of college football. An elite few guys will go on to have careers in the NFL. Most, including Stetson, won’t. Sure, he might be too busy working as a wealth manager at his father’s bank to care. Everybody, however, has a shot to be carried high off the field in the arms of cheerleaders.

A day after the Bulldogs triumph, Ireland’s very own college football championship got underway for NUIG and Ulster University Jordanstown in Whitehall, north Dublin. In front of a couple of hundred spectators, the Galway students staged an admirable comeback to lead “The Poly” by a couple of points heading for the critical hour mark, when substitute Seán Mulkerrin suffered a bad leg injury.

The game was paused for well over 30 minutes in near-freezing conditions while both teams patiently waited for an ambulance to arrive. After consulting with both managers, the referee decided to call the result without resuming play in the interests of safety. The game was far from a foregone conclusion, so the magnanimity of Jordanstown in accepting this unsatisfactory if understandable resolution was appropriately collegiate, to say the very least. As Mulkerrin, a Galway senior footballer from Inis Mor, was whisked off in an ambulance into the Dublin night, his sporting season in smithereens, somewhere off in Georgia, Stetson Bennett IV and his football bros were partying long into the night, oblivious to the plight of the Irish student athlete.

Comparing the NCAA National Championship game to the Sigerson Cup is a little like comparing apples and candy floss. One, the NCAA, is an industry that’s estimated to be worth well over $18bn (€15.87bn). The other, the Sigerson Cup and its equivalents across hurling, camogie, and ladies football, are competitions that continue to compel and captivate, almost in spite of themselves, but do so as comparatively bespoke cottage industries.

The last three weeks have seen sporting social media lit up by afternoon updates from random grounds around the country, detailing the exploits of the games’ most exciting players played in ultra-competitive arenas. Grainy footage shot from camera phones. The odd, courageous livestream from a willing conduit. Broadcaster Jerome Quinn acting as a patron saint for an institution he clearly loves. In a world where everything worth televising is televised, every story worth telling corrupted or monetised, Sigerson football still somehow exists in an underworld of accidental hipsterdom, as if the last bastion of bohemian collegiate life, like bootleg cassettes of the band that are so good they should be huge, but never will.

From the late 70s to the mid-2000s, the best creative writing to come out of universities in this country was arguably found in Sigerson programmes. Not for the faint of heart, player profiles were as ruthless as they were inappropriately funny. You could be the worst footballer on campus, but your ability to take down a teammate with the cryptic written word made you as indispensable as the club captain. That was and remains the spirit of the thing. Your first choice corner-back may be your least shite option. You may also have David
Clifford in attack. It’s a rare, beautiful amalgam of backgrounds and circumstances bringing young people together for a common cause.

So, what’s the catch? Why are competitions so revered by those who compete in them, so often treated with such suspicion and prejudice by such key stakeholders as some inter-county managers, and the GAA itself?

Why do these games — so formative in the sporting and social development of players of all abilities and backgrounds — inspire such angst and ambivalence, so much so that they seem to be in a constant state of existential peril?

Year after year after year, student athletes (let’s call them that for the sake of clarity), are compromised by the conflict of which master they should serve — the inter-county manager (no matter how peripheral they are to that cause), or their college teammates?

This tug-of-war that can be complicated by the responsibility that comes with scholarships and bursaries, essential for many student athletes in order to live, work, study, and play, and further complicated still by the GAA’s shoulder shrug when it comes to their reluctance to issue clear directives to both counties and colleges on what the hell they should be doing with their student athletes each winter and spring.

Enough soft talk about player welfare and discretion. Players, by choice or otherwise, playing two games on the same day make a mockery of such ideals.

Being mindful of what’s best for student athletes, not just in the short term use and abuse of their bodies, but in the far-sighted benefits of letting them have genuine college experience, is understandably beyond most managers, who are themselves constantly under stress regarding their own futures in the game.

Ergo, the responsibility must be removed from them. Inter-county footballers who wish to play college football need to be protected and allowed to do so. Otherwise the competition will perish, and the joy of college life for those student athletes will perish with it.

Writing on these pages earlier this month, Paul Rouse said: “For the great majority of the students in Irish third-level institutions, the Sigerson Cup has no meaning. Many will not even really know of its existence.”

There is nothing surer.

The same can be said for the Collingwood and the ladies football equivalent (which, to my shame, I had to look up — it’s called the O’Connor Cup). In some respects, there is something inherently healthy about this ambivalence.

As evidenced across the US and rugby schools in this country, the campus culture of idolising the student athlete has only led to bad things — typically groupthink and jock culture.

So, by accident, we are spared the curse of notoriety. The longer the GAA refuses to acknowledge its responsibility in protecting college games, the longer it continues to compromise the integrity of a potentially hugely formative experience of its student-athlete population.

Third-level institutions will hopefully always exist. Footballers and hurlers will always go to college and should be encouraged to enjoy every aspect of that experience to ensure they develop as players and, more importantly, as people. They should not have to choose.

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