There are things so obvious they should not need to be said, writes Paul Rouse
But sometimes the most obvious words are made startling by the context in which they are written.
And so it is that a sentence leaps off page 143 of the ESRI’s report ‘Playing Senior Inter-County Gaelic Games: Experiences, Realities and Consequences’ which was published this week.
The expression of enjoyment and its importance comes from comments made by players at workshops organised in February and March 2017 in each of the four provinces.
Each workshop was organised so that three players from the 2016 county teams within each province, both hurling and football, were to attend.
The ambition was to explore what it is like to be a male inter-county player — we await a report on women who play at the same level.
The synopsis of the content of the workshops sets out with clarity the extent to which inter-county players understand how much they benefit from playing at that level.
They note, primarily, how they are playing a sport that they love, and that brings great enjoyment: “It gives them an opportunity to express themselves.”
They note, also, the opportunities to travel, for example to the United States. There is acknowledgement that playing at that level gives their lives structure, and makes them proactive and organised.
Ultimately, it allows for routine and a more disciplined lifestyle. It also gives them transferable qualities and skills, such as teamwork and leadership, which they can carry out into the rest of their lives.
This is manifest in the statement that “players felt that playing inter-county can increase employment opportunities, e.g. a player’s profile can help them to get certain jobs.” Further, “it improves their personal profile.”
Other testimony records how players felt that playing at the inter-county level gives them an opportunity to meet new people, and to develop friendships for life.
Some of these “new people” were met in what might loosely be described as a romantic way. To this end, getting “free into Coppers” and encounters with what are characterised as “jersey birds” are all part of the story.
There is also the more nebulous but fundamental idea of “pride”. Some of this pride came from living up to a family or local tradition; more of the pride comes from wearing an iconic jersey; and still more of it was personal pride in the achievement of making it to the highest level of the game.
The end result is that “83% agreed/strongly agreed that they were glad that they made the choice to play inter-county, while another 14% somewhat agreed.”
To set out the evidence of enjoyment, personal development, personal benefits and broad satisfaction in playing for a county is not to dismiss the fact that there can be downsides and challenges.
In short, there are caveats to the enjoyment. For example, for all the talk about the importance of the squad in the modern game, players acknowledge that “there can be a big difference in the enjoyment experienced by those on the first 15/21 compared to those towards the tail end of the panel.”
Trailing along at the lower reaches of an inter-county panel can be a soul-destroying experience. There is evidence of chronic injury, increased stress, sleep deprivation, lost career opportunities and hindered friendships.
There is also the familiar evidence about the sacrifices that players have to make in relationships when they are playing inter-county football and hurling — the missed weddings, the nights out without alcohol, the strains on family, the decision to delay starting a family.
These are the facts of life for anyone who wishes to play inter-county football and hurling as things stand.
This potent mix of love, ambition, desire and a sense of there being only a short window of opportunity drives players in a way that is set out with admirable honesty: “It’s a selfish existence”, some players said.
Because waiting at the end of all of this is the day when it all ends. The meaning of that is clear: “There is a void”.
The first great service that the authors of this report — Elish Kelly, Joanne Banks, Seamus McGuinness and Dorothy Watson — offer is that they set out in plain English the many things that everybody with a basic knowledge of the inter-county scene already knew.
It’s there now in black-on-white, evidence-based, independently-produced, backed up by page-after-page of statistical evidence.
The scale of the report, the way it deals in a nuanced way with the positives and negatives of being an inter-county player, means that it offers a complex picture — in this it reflects the complexities of experience which are manifest across more than 60 inter-county teams.
The second great service is that it sets out a series of questions that must now be answered.
Here are just two: Is all the training that is being undertaken, and therefore the time commitment given, needed to get the end results?
Are the end results any different to what the situation was like prior to the introduction of a lot of the performance measures that have given rise to the extra time commitments?
And these ‘extra time commitments’ get right to the nub of the matter. The demands placed on players continue to grow. Who decides that?
All of this leads to the most striking sentence in the report — a sentence that is unusually stark in its criticism, albeit one that is forged as a question: “Is there a need for the associations to lead as opposed to be led in this regard?”
And the reality of it is that neither the GAA nor the GPA has done anything meaningful — maybe anything at all — to address the single greatest issue which impacts upon the welfare and enjoyment of inter-county players.
Maybe this will now change.
As the report concludes: “The underlying source of many of the player welfare issues identified remains: How can the time commitments that are being required of players be addressed?”
But it is a question that can only be answered when the ‘time commitments’ of club players and all voluntary GAA officials are also considered. Any sign of a report on that?
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