BRENDAN O'BRIEN: GAA players face a simple choice: Commit, or don’t

Joe Brolly

GAA players? Why, they’ve never had it so good, writes Brendan O’Brien.

It’s true, and in every facet of their lives, on and off the pitch. Seriously, if you walked on Croke Park’s sacred sod back in the days when turf management was a guy poking an open fire with a stick then you’d have to agree. We’re talking different worlds here.

Pitches are no longer quagmires. Facilities in general have been transformed from cold concrete shells to state-of-the-art centres of excellence.

Cold showers have been superseded by ice baths and there’s a few quid to be had for expenses and what have you.

We could go on but, clearly, there’s a lot to be said for it.

Make it to the top and there’s a few more bob to be made from commercial endorsements and then there’s the timeless cachet that comes with being a representative of your club or county in a community where the local team is the epicentre of the universe. Yep, it’s not exactly breaking rocks, so why all the recent hand-wringing?

First there was Joe Brolly and his talk about GAA players being indentured slaves, then Bernard Brogan gave a fascinating insight into the mind of the modern inter-county player when he spoke about how he and others have chosen life paths that fit around their decision to wear a particular geansaí on a Sunday afternoon.

There’s a couple of things to be said here. First and most obvious is the fact that nobody is forcing hurlers or footballers to train five or six times a week, eat chicken and pasta 24/7 or swear off the drink for a season. Neither does anyone strive to play inter-county hurling or football under the illusion that it is a passage to easy street.

It is what it is.

“Ultimately, players want to be the best they can be and they commit to this with their eyes wide open,” said GPA CEO Dessie Farrell this week. “There is a choice they can make. They can decide to do it or not to do it. Some players decide they will do it for a period of time and then retire and that’s fine. But that’s elite sport everywhere.”

GAA players face a simple choice: Commit, or don’t

GPA CEO Dessie Farrell

And that’s the second point: This isn’t something unique to GAA players. The primacy the GAA enjoys in the national consciousness, and the sheer volume of players playing the games, inevitably means that their cases will be presented in the dock of public opinion more than others but they are far from alone.

Right now there are hundreds of Irish sportspeople stretching every sinew and shilling to make the summit in sports, from archery to weightlifting and, while some of them will receive support from the government purse and maybe even sponsors, theirs is a road that promises nothing but toil and hardship.

Mention has been made about how Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey went against the GAA grain by choosing to study medicine rather than teaching, but Mark English is in the same class in UCD and he is a European Athletics bronze medallist.

In fairness to McCaffrey, he has said that too much is made of the hardships facing GAA players and many of his colleagues have followed suit in recent weeks. There is, however, a wider issue to be addressed here.

The professionalisation of sport has brought with it a myriad of improvements for those playing, watching and profiting from it but there is an evident emergence of opinion that maybe this utopia has a dystopian side in that it had altered for good the inherent value of sport as a pastime to be enjoyed rather than endured.

The GAA recently published a report on the issue of burnout among its underage fraternity and Niall Moran, the Limerick hurler coaching Ardscoil Ris in the Harty Cup, spoke this week about the punishing levels of preparation schoolkids must sign up for to earn a ticket to that show.

Anyone who ever spent time around their counterparts in the country’s traditional rugby schools would empathise with Moran’s words. Nobody calls sport ‘fun’ anymore.

It is a business and we are long past the stage where it is treated as anything else. Professionalisation, whether in body or in spirit, has seen to that.

Development squads and academies and money have raised standards and allowed the cream to rise to the top but such advances have stripped us of our romantic notions. Sport has morphed into something clinical. It is about weight training. And diet. Rehab. Prehab. Pre-seasons. Media training.

Players and athletes aren’t so much indentured slaves but automatons so, yes, people may have a point when they point out that maybe it is all approaching unsustainable levels in the GAA and, while any efforts to tackle issues like burnout are to be welcomed, it was Eddie O’Sullivan who liked to say you can’t unring a bell.

The days of bans on collective training are gone. There is no going back.

The choice for players and athletes is simple: Commit, or don’t.

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* Twitter: @Rackob


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