BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Pay for play is GAA’s inevitable destination

Dessie Farrell, CEO, Gaelic Players Association

It must be a decade now since Dessie Farrell found space for two seats amid the organised chaos that was the Gaelic Players Association’s (GPA) old offices in Drumcondra and told this column he had no intention of staying on as chief executive beyond another few years.

Best laid plans and all that.

It’s only now the former Dublin captain is clearing his desk in the association’s ultra-modern headquarters just a 10-minute drive down the road in Santry.

The GPA has travelled a long, long way in that relatively short length of time and Farrell will depart in the belief he has done the game, and its players in particular, no small amount of service.

Farrell the man is hard not to like. Not once in all our dealings with him has he been anything other than courteous and professional.

He has somehow broken down historic barriers in the GAA with a voice that sits somewhere on the aural graph between timid and imperceptible and yet few people in the sport’s history has divided opinion like him.

The many improvements in player welfare were as welcome as they were necessary but the fact is deals such as the latest government-funded grant scheme that sets aside almost €7m for inter-county players, along with the growing influence of TV and sponsorship revenues, has shifted the GAA’s core from one founded on culture and tradition to that of raw economics.

It would be wrong to demonise — or acclaim — Farrell or anyone else in the GPA or Croke Park for any of this.

Association, American and Australian football all stumbled down similar paths.

Rugby, too. Farrell and the GPA have consistently come out against the notion of professionalism but pay-for-play is simply the inevitable destination when money assumes primacy in its corridors of power.

The GAA crossed that Rubicon long before the GPA announced itself in 1999. The march on Rome has simply gathered pace.

The metamorphosis has been a difficult one. It always is and it will continue to be regardless of who is CEO of the GPA or president of the GAA.

“Crisis consists precisely in the fact the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” said Antonio Gramsci, the Italian theorist and politician. “In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear,” Is the GAA in crisis? You’d better believe it.

This is an organisation swearing allegiance to one creed (amateurism) while plotting a course that can only end in another (professionalism, semi- or full).

That Gramsci quote was pulled from a study by a guy called Ian Andrews on ‘The Changing Face of Australian Football 1960-1999’.

Don’t be put off by its academic origins, Andrews’ work provides a panoramic peak under the hood of the Aussie game and how the sport was transformed post-World War II from a beat-up old jalopy into a high-powered gas guzzler with a V8 engine.

And the parallels with the GAA are impossible to miss. Andrews explains how the Victorian Football League, as it was then, held a traditional cultural role akin to that of the GAA that “was progressively subordinated to, and problematised by, an economically driven process of restructuring” as the league went from a 12-team semi-pro setup to a 16-team fully professional body.

Declining crowds in the 1960s prompted rule changes designed to speed up and improve play so that officials could bring added ‘entertainment value’ to the table when dealing with TV companies and prospective sponsors. Management of clubs, and the league itself, passed from the hands of well-meaning amateurs to professional staff.

Any of this sound familiar?

One of the key drivers towards the birth of the commercial behemoth we know as the AFL was North Melbourne’s capture of the Premiership title in 1975.

One of the first clubs to grasp the new way of doing business away from the pitch, the club’s success on it stood as proof to everyone this was the way of the future.

They were the Dublin of their time and place.

Growing pains were still inevitable.

Ticket prices rose and clubs experienced financial problems on a greater level than anything seen before but the overall mission was a success even if everyone wasn’t converted.

Resistance to proposed mergers prompted significant backlashes. Footscray Bulldogs fans famously succeeded in delaying the club’s rebranding as the Western Bulldogs in 1989, but it happened anyway seven years later.

Likewise with Fitzroy who were forcibly merged with Brisbane despite stiff resistance. Once vibrant regional leagues succumbed to the status of nurseries to the all-powerful AFL.

Andrews, clearly a fan of Gramsci, quoted the Italian again when pointing out the futility of holding back what we loosely tend to term as progress: “Traditional cultural and ideological elements exert an influence in the short term,” he said, “but … they are typically rendered impotent in the face of relentless economic forces.”

We live in interesting times.

Email: brendan .obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob


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