The big interview with Seán Potts: ‘The GPA isn’t anti-club’

Seán Potts has had a front row seat for the GPA’s journey from the margins to a seat at the table in Croke Park. There’s been setbacks, turbulent episodes and cheap shots along the way — and there’s probably more to come. But he’s saying farewell to an established inter-county players’ voice now...

The big interview with Seán Potts: ‘The GPA isn’t anti-club’

It’s been a long, strange trip from Dessie Farrell’s parents’ front room.

The deal announced last month guaranteeing €6.2m to the Gaelic Players Association for its welfare and development programmes was a watershed of sorts, an indication of the GPA’s place at the heart of the modern GAA.

A far cry from the players blinking in the limelight of The Late Late Show when the organisation launched in 1999.

“Players understood at the time back in the late 1990s that things had changed, but the way they were being treated in terms of welfare wasn’t commensurate with those changes,” says Seán Potts, who stepped down last week as head of communications for the GPA.

“Stadia were growing, TV deals were being struck, the games were commercialising but players were being treated as they had been 20 years previously. That’s why the GPA came into existence. The thing was, nobody had any experience of how to do that.”

Donal O’Neill, who had worked for IMG (International Management Group), had a vision that an organisation might be viable and those players who joined him took up the running.

“The founders knew it had to be a players’ organisation,” says Potts. “They knew players had to be front and centre — but at the start it was run from Dessie Farrell’s mother’s front room. That’s where the office was, and Anne Farrell’s excellent secretarial skills were frequently called upon.”

The learning curve was steep. How do you set up an organisation? One strength they had was Farrell’s personality.

“From the outset people listened to him, he was able to bring them together,” says Potts. “People with different skills — he didn’t have experience of running an organisation at that time but he was captain of his county, he had innate leadership skills and he identified people who’d have been of value to the organisation.”

Potts was a journalist at the time and met Farrell prior to the Dublin launch of the GPA — “in Copper Face Jacks” in December 1999.

Farrell had invited journalists to the launch following the annual Dublin GAA awards and Potts was taken immediately by the notion of a “pioneering group of players”.

“I’d always been passionate about defending the cause, however you want to describe it. I’d been eight years in journalism and felt there was a need to defend and advocate for Gaelic games in that environment. The newspaper industry traditionally wouldn’t be run by people we’d refer to, euphemistically maybe, as GAA people, like a lot of big industries.

“Gaelic games weren’t disrespected but were somewhat down the pecking order, and I saw the GPA as an opportunity to change that. I was a close friend of Páidí Ó Sé — in fairness, I surrendered my objectivity as a journalist when we became friends — and wrote his book, and the period spent writing his book showed me life on the other side of the fence.

“All of that motivated me to get involved voluntarily with the GPA, and early on I was kind of a ‘black ops’ man for them, trying to help them grow.”

It was a “turbulent” time of high-octane meetings, but Potts says it was also the period in which a vision of how the GAA could treat players was being distilled.

“Dónal Óg (Cusack) was clear in his autobiography about trying to work out what was best for players, and he and Dessie were distilling a vision of what the GPA could become.

“There’s a video from years ago of Wexford legend Liam Griffin, very much a players’ man, talking about the GAA and what a wonderful organisation it was — but pointing out that it hadn’t been set up to look after players. It had never had those strands. That’s why he said the GPA was so important, providing support for those now being harnessed commercially: Inter-county players are the cohort who are harnessed commercially by the GAA for the benefit of the GAA — and that’s why the recent deal is so valuable in that it recognises the need to give something back.”

After writing Dessie Farrell’s biography in 2005, Potts got more involved in publicising the GPA. He had moved from journalism to the communications field but with the GPA growing year on year, despite the GAA initially setting up a rival body, the Association soon recognised that the players wanted to be represented by a body of its own.

One issue in particular dominated the early years of the Association.

“The GAA was desperately fearful of professionalism — everyone felt the need to protect what they valued most, the amateur ethos of the Association.

“We understood that implicitly, but during those heady debates, there were two strands to the defence against professionalism. One was the moral argument, that there was something inherently noble about amateurism, the volunteer ethos and so forth. The second was commercial — that professionalism wasn’t viable.

“In most sports, athletes would like to be professional, particularly in terms of rest time, but given the limitations of the GAA commercially and the consequences for the inter-county structure and the impact on the GAA’s community nature — all of that would be a very high price to pay.

“Dónal Óg also added at the time that if funding was allocated to wages, then there wouldn’t be funding to invest in the lives of players. The GPA had started to focus on development as being as important as welfare for these players, young people in their formative years — that if a player could be supported in their lives away from the games, then the extraordinary commitment to the games as elite sportspeople would be more viable.”

Potts acknowledges that people viewed the GPA as focusing on finance, but he points out that that was only one part of the picture.

“Because some of the big initial wins were financial, and aimed at a specific cohort within the GAA, some people associated the GPA with one aspect of player welfare. The government funding was crucial because it meant the status of the GAA player — which had been part of my reason for getting involved — was recognised, that the GAA player was in the same bracket as other elite sportspeople who were funded by the government or entitled to tax breaks on career earnings. We were always confident that there was a silent majority in the association supportive of that.

“There was initial resistance to our proposal for the grants scheme but I think the silent majority was reflected the day we staged protests to delay the start of some league games, there was a vox pop on RTÉ and while we expected a barrage of criticism, it was very supportive.”

The Dubliner stresses, however, that the “real ground-breaking progress” was in implementing the player development programme following formal recognition by the GAA in 2010.

“The rationale was to put funding in place to support the player with their own personal development, their education, career, their physical and emotional wellbeing. That’s not woolly, because you see the consequences of players transitioning out of the game with problems.

“And those aren’t always serious problems, it can be as straightforward as lingering regret.

“You often hear former players saying publicly ‘I have no regrets’, but it’s different when you meet them face to face and they recount the missed opportunities in life.

“Getting players to engage in this support structure — and evidence points to this — means the whole playing experience is enhanced. They have a better understanding of who they are outside of just being a player performing at the top level.

“You have to look at the idea of athletic identity in this context. When people criticise the GPA for various matters, none of the critics focus on this.

“Do people understand athletic identity? What are the consequences of someone thinking they’re ‘just’ a footballer or hurler coming to 31 or 32, a blossoming part of their lives, and thinking they’re ‘finished’?

“That can have a negative impact on a person’s life.

“The idea of being finished is part of the sporting narrative, the media will talk of a player being gone, finished. There’s been a lot of research in the US into how amateur college athletes deal with this, and they’re encouraged to think of retirement as a transition rather than an end. County players should not leave the game at a disadvantage because of their sporting commitment.

“Some players cope very well but some don’t — and that goes across the inter-county spectrum, successful and not so successful. It’s an amateur career and you must tend to the things that are important, that everybody else tends to; you must manage your time, difficult though that is.”

The support the GPA offers to players is, by definition, quiet, he adds.

“The model is a holistic one, looking at the whole player as a person and supporting them in a non-judgemental place. Not even an inter-county dressing-room provides that. There’s a sanctity to those dressing-rooms, but it’s also a competitive environment.

“With the GPA there’s no manager, no team-mates, and the player can just pick up a phone to start whatever journey they want — to change career, to develop a career, to deal with a difficulty they have.

“We’ve been on hand to provide support services for players quietly and confidentially and while we constantly promote what we do, individual cases are not something we shout about or can shout about.

“The player development programme is in its infancy and it is pioneering in scope. The GAA deserves praise for grasping what the GPA is doing in this area and for putting funding in place to support this work, it’s an important step in the development of the Association.

“When competition structures are eventually reformed you’re looking at a very exciting period in the GAA’s development.”

Potts acknowledges that the GPA has been a lightning rod for criticism, though he describes much of it as a “non-sequitur”.

“We know the commitment has grown and some people feel the clock needs to be turned back, but who can point to an instance of that happening?

“You must look at progressive change, and the GPA has always been fearless in looking for progressive change for its members, despite its detractors.

“A lot of the criticism the GPA gets is a non sequitur. There are issues now regarding the structure of the season, and the GPA is one — just one — stakeholder in that. Those issues will only be solved by everybody getting together to do so; making noise won’t solve them. The commitment at club level has also grown, as everybody takes sport more seriously. Clubs need a viable playing season, and so do inter-county players, who want to play with their clubs when it matters.

“They also want to play with their counties, to be the best they can be and compete at the highest level possible.

“We’re not being illogical or elitist in that. There’s a tier in football and hurling above all others, and it’s harnessed commercially by the GAA for the benefit of the Association. The GPA isn’t anti-club. The idea of a club player representative body is a good one, but when you talk about the ‘club player’, that’s a very disparate group — senior players, juveniles, junior players, recreational players, ladies footballers, camogie players — probably close to 250,000 people.

“It should also be pointed out that club players are very represented within the GAA, every club has a delegate at county board level and can raise any issue the wish through those channels, right up to Congress.

“Everybody in the GPA is a GAA member; I’ve taken issue with the idea we don’t care about our clubs because we represent county players. It’s a cheap shot.

“Dessie Farrell soldiered diligently with his club for 25 years; same with Dónal Og who managed his club’s minors last year.”

The GPA has carried on working, and the GAA has developed its relationship with the GPA as seen in that recent deal.

“That was an important next step,” says Potts, “A step to ensuring the GPA is relevant to where players are now, because the commitment is different now to 10 years ago, and to 10 years before that. That’s not to say people weren’t committed in their own contexts, but people will also find ways to up the stakes.

“The GPA was set up by a certain group and for any group to remain relevant it must be owned by its members. The only way that a player development programme will work is if the players take ownership of it.”

Potts points to the new faces at the helm of the GPA for evidence.

“We have a voluntary executive which governs the GPA, and the organisation’s been exemplary in its structural development from the early days, when we didn’t know what we were doing, to creating a constitution and structures — and it’s governed by players.

“It’s important to look at the new faces — Seamus Hickey, Dermot Earley, Paul Flynn, Richie Hogan, the men who conducted the recent negotiations with the GAA and who were speaking from experience about what it meant to them.

“That ownership by the players is a very powerful thing and has great potential for progressive change. The GAA recognises that and under the new agreement they have created a forum to harness player views on relevant matters”

As he moves on — to the hospitality industry — is Potts happy with where the GPA is now?

“I’m very happy that the Association has a bright future. It should always be remembered it was founded by players for players, and there was always a players’ perspective to what the organisation needed to be.

“People need to understand the context it grew out of. In the late 80s the GAA began to commercialise — people had always paid in to watch matches and there was a value based on the big games, but sponsorship and live television changed things fundamentally for county players. With debate raging today about live broadcasts, there’s probably a generation around who don’t remember when only the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals were shown live. Big games became milestones in the growth of the GAA and the growth of that commercialism. Those in charge of the GAA understood the realities of securing the long-term health of the Association — embracing a modern sports culture and commercialism to survive.

“They understood the games needed to change just as other sports changed.”

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