BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Who will flash the cash that cracks GAA’s amateur code?

Hill 16
A rainbow over Hill 16, will it take a pot of gold to break the GAA's amateur ethos? Picture: Brendan Moran

Shuffle forward a week from now and the drawbridge will close on applications for the role of the GAA’s next director general. Interesting times lie ahead, but the process of appointing Pauric Duffy’s successor has already shone a revealing light on an association at war with itself.

Does the new person need a business-related, primary third-level degree or not? The latter, it seems, now that the powers-that-be have clarified as much and extended the application period by seven days to accommodate those who may feel encouraged by the news.

However, all that does is kick what is a ticking time bomb down the road.

Where is the GAA headed?

Those with a leaning towards the practicalities of modern, high-end sport and its marriage with commercialism would say that a strong business acumen, if not a piece of parchment, is vital.

Others among the membership with more of a devotion to tradition and history and the GAA’s founding ethos have already kicked up a stink about the very stipulation mentioned above.

There is a third community amid all this debate.

There is no small number of us out there torn between the two, who admit the inevitability of the organisation’s path further away from its founding ethos and vision. Some may even embrace that.

As for this column: We have long been of the view that the GAA’s path, whether for good or bad, has been locked towards professionalism for some time. A new boss won’t change that.

Like an oil tanker approaching port, it would take far too long to steer the ship away from a mooring that was decided upon by the drip of events, from shirt and competition sponsorship to the commercialisation of Croke Park, the inter-county game’s domination of all else, the Sky TV deal and the million other little cuts made at the hide of amateurism.

What the unveiling of the new DG and his/her first number of months in office down by Jones’ Road will tell us is whether the GAA — or those doing the hiring, anyway — intends to rage against the dying of that light, accept it meekly, but with a mind to make the most of it, or plough full steam ahead.

History tells us that and so, too, does the academic literature, actually.

There is little enough research on the effects of high-level leadership on the culture of sports organisations, but Collins and Cruickshank (2012) did point out that the establishment of a new vision is only doable at “watershed” moments, of which this is clearly one.

Trice and Beyer (1991) also tell us that different leaders are needed for different organisations: Dynamic types for those seeking change, proponents of consensus for bodies requiring a maintenance of current ways and norms.

So, we’ll know a lot more about the direction of the GAA’s next decade, then, when the email drops with the DG’s new name.

If it turns out to be someone seeking a new path, whether by curbing the inter-county game’s influence or a retreat, however small or large, from the ongoing commercialisation of the organisation itself or its games, then they face into a hard road.

A 2003 study of North American corporations that attempted meaningful cultural change found that only 19% believed they had succeeded and there is a considerable body of opinion out there that the GAA is badly in need of cultural change.

Regardless of the identity of the new boss, a clear vision is essential. A 2009 study of six major US sports franchises found that all agreed on that.

Without vision, the paper remarked, everything else is “futile” and, yet, if any sporting organisation could do with sitting down and asking where it is going, it is the GAA.

As the money flooding into the game increases — and it will — and demands on players multiply, there will come a point when the dam breaks, when all pretence towards amateurism and the money under the famously hard-to-find tables is washed away.

It was hard not to think just that when reading Simon Lister’s superb book Fire in Babylon recently and, in particular, a quote from English fast bowler John Snow.

He said: “If I’d have been outside Lord’s on St John’s Wood Road emptying the dustbins instead of inside playing cricket I would have been earning more money in the course of the week and been finished by midday.”

Snow was one of many top-class cricketers to follow the money in the 1970s, when Kerry Packer undercut the game’s haughty old rulers by offering the players big bucks rather than mere buttons.

In the past, rugby union players and AFL footballers had thoughts and conversions
similar to that of Snow, as cash became king, so it is delusional to think GAA players won’t do likewise at some point.

Or haven’t already.

Maybe, the burning issue now is not who will be the next director general.

Maybe the million-dollar question is: Who will be the GAA’s Kerry Packer?


Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien 


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