It is one of the great axiomatic principles of the GAA that the club is the bedrock of the Association. This is repeated time and again and is rooted in the reality of the lives of people all across Ireland.
But club players in the GAA are treated with a disrespect that borders on contempt.
There is no point in pretending that anything else is true.
And nobody who plays at club level can have any doubt on this matter.
So it is that the single most significant aspect of the deal which the GAA and the GPA announced this week relates to its impact on club players.
This aspect is both brutal and familiar: once again club players are invisible.
When it comes to club players, the pieties of those who celebrate the club are merely recycled clichés — their words are not matched by their deeds.
The GAA hierarchy and the GPA can dress up this simple fact anyway they wish, but it is a simple and singular truth.
Yet, when it comes down to it, the GAA/GPA deal actually does do one great service to the ordinary club player — it reveals with clarity the extent of the disrespect in which they are held: Club players are now so irrelevant that they do not merit even lip service.
The deal begs a range of questions which lay bare the hypocrisy of those who suggest the GAA is an egalitarian organisation. For example, why should there be a fund to pay for operations needed by former inter-county players, but not to pay for operations needed by former club players?
Is the simple fact of having played inter-county football or hurling enough to qualify a player for such an operation, while a lifetime of service as a mere club player is an irrelevance?
And how do you even begin to legislate properly for such a scheme? Who decides who should get medical help and who shouldn’t? How will the people in need be identified? Will it depend on their profile or on knowing the right person? Will it be means-tested? Will there be a hierarchy of need and who will conduct the assessments to establish this hierarchy?
The basic question stands: Why does the health of a former inter-county player matter more than the health of a former club player?
Ultimately, the disrespect for the clubman runs deep in this new deal. In meaning, it relegates the time which people across Ireland give to running GAA clubs to being of a lesser importance to that of inter-county players.
For example, as it says itself, the new agreement recognises ‘the contribution inter-county players make to the commercial success of the GAA and the huge commitment given by and expected of them.’ But there is no suggestion that such a standard will be applied to — for example — the chairmen and secretaries of GAA clubs. Nor, of course, will it be applied to those who give so much of their lives and their own money in the service of GAA clubs at every level.
The success of the GAA has been rooted in the connectivity of volunteerism. That has been steadily eroded. The language of elitism has triumphed and the logical progression of the new GAA/GPA agreement is professionalism. One side will pretend that this is not so, and the other will flat-out deny it, but that is the inevitable destination of the path that is now being walked. The patterns of history are obvious here.
And, of course, the market in Ireland is too small to accommodate anything other than a sort of fudged, yellow-pack professionalism — but the momentum to that place is now relentless. This week’s deal will be seen as a pivotal moment on that journey.
In the meantime, the current dysfunctional stasis will prevail: no calendar of play will operate which will provide for club players a proper series of meaningful games. Instead, everything will continue to operate to the beat of the county scene.
Almost always, this will mean that what an inter-county manager wishes to happen will continue to be the writ by which a county’s club scene will run.
The GAA/GPA press release laid bare the gathering power of a small core of inter-county players. It reveals, among other things, that there will be:
(1) Mechanisms to improve input from county players into matters of GAA policy that are important to them;
(2) Establishment of a working party to explore and address the demands placed on county players.
Supporting these new arrangements, GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghail said: “We are serious about the welfare of our players and will continue to work with the GPA to safeguard that welfare.”
Fair enough — nobody can seriously argue that the welfare of inter-county players does not demand safeguarding. But, as the GPA has grown in power and wealth over the last decade and more, the GAA hierarchy has been abject in its failure to cater for club players. The scale of this failure is now plain to see.
Any deal with the GPA should have been part of a wider process which committed the Association to respect and proper treatment for all its players — and fundamental to this respect is the provision of club games in a fair and organised manner.
The mood music around this new agreement gives no hope that this will change. There may be a little window-dressing, the traditional rhetoric will continue to be trotted out, but that will be it. This is another grim week for the ordinary club player.
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