In large font on the front page of both ESRI reports commissioned for the GAA and GPA exists the phrase “evidence for policy”.
Claimed as “extremely useful” by GAA president John Horan and validation by the GPA’s chief executive Paul Flynn, the ESRI’s work was commended by both groups. GAA director general Tom Ryan went so far as to claim the findings from the first report in September 2018 were “very sobering”.
On the back of that report, a joint GAA-GPA committee was established with a mind to producing an action plan. That group comprises for the GPA Flynn, Eamonn Murphy, Dr Jim O’Donovan and Michael Fennelly and for the GAA Horan, Feargal McGill, Mike O’Riordan and Seamus Kenny.
Their plan covers a variety of areas including coaching education, physical demands of the inter-county game and the emotional health and well-being of inter-county players. Some recommendations arising from the ESRI report were forwarded to the medical, scientific and welfare committee and fixtures review task force although there is no mention of the ESRI in the latter’s publication.
Seventeen months on from the release of the ESRI report, which initially raised alarm about the remarkable 31 hours per week inter-county players were committing to the inter-county game and three months after the second publication highlighted further troubling revelations about the consumption of alcohol among elite footballers and hurlers, the ESRI has seen no recommendation forwarded to Congress by the GAA or GPA precisely on foot of their findings.
Elish Kelly, the ESRI’s leading author of both reports, describes the reaction from both the GAA and GPA to the second report as being “quite muted”. On the basis of recent developments that the parties’ negotiations about GPA funding have hit a money “roadblock” as described by Horan, she acknowledges there are extenuating circumstances.
She further stresses “the ESRI has done the job that it was asked to do” and “has put the work out there and very clearly. We have no control over what the organisations we work for decide to focus on.”
Yet she is concerned to hear why the GAA and GPA are currently not seeing eye-to-eye. In response to Horan’s comments in December, the GPA maintained their negotiating team were committed to getting the best deal possible for their members “and which in particular replenishes any out of pocket expenses accrued”. According to the ESRI’s first report, less than 2.9% of players in 2016 wanted more perks.
“I’m not savvy to know what’s going on there only that what I’m picking up information from the news that’s the impasse has to do with expenses,” Kelly remarks. “If that’s the case, my question is how much attention is being paid to what was in that actual report.
“The first report focused on the time commitment, six hours a week short of effectively a job for players. The second report was to look specifically at the education and career decisions players were taking around their inter-county commitments and alcohol and supplements use.
“The alcohol findings are interesting in that while their consumption is no different to the general population and there is a perception that they are the one key difference is that when they consume alcohol they consume more than the general population.
“The question is are the way the games being played today giving rise to that behaviour? It’s not the responsibility of the GAA or GPA to address the societal issue around alcohol consumption but there is a question there if you’re getting excess consumption in a particular season is there something about the way the games are being played that is giving rise to that.
“So is that linking back to the players’ time commitments and not having an off-season or not having enough down time so to relax and to normalise that sort of behaviour as opposed to contributing to binge drinking in periods because that is what appears to be going on? That’s the idea of doing research - identifying what the situation is and is there something that needs to be done.”
Since the release of the first ESRI report, the length of the inter-county season has contracted and there are plans to condense it further for the betterment of clubs, although Kelly queries what has been done in that regard on the basis of the ESRI’s work.
“When we asked players what they would change about their inter-county experience, the main focus is about the length of the season or about having a fixed season period and the time commitments in the sense that they would like to see a reduction.
“The question is, is anyone seriously looking at this because if you were then maybe you wouldn’t have some of the other issues that emerged in that report and maybe some of the issues that are potentially being talked about in the current negotiations.
“What is on the agenda of Congress this year, did anyone bring any motions on the back of that report? The only place that the real changes players are talking about can be made at Congress. Is that information filtering down to provincial and county level?
“Less than two weeks ago, Tom Ryan came out about the cost of the inter-county game (almost €30 million). The players talk about a shorter season and reduced time commitments and bringing enjoyment back into the game. If some of those issues were addressed, would you have the same costs that you currently have?”
The 31 hours per week statistic has been quoted often but Kelly points out it tells only some of the tale. “That’s very much a baseline measure. What I mean by that is you can’t capture the mental time that players are putting in either preparing for a game or before training. You can imagine the guys in Dublin thinking ‘I have to get down to Castleblayney’ or ‘I have to get down to Castlebar’ and ‘I have to be leaving the office at 3 o’clock so as I can get out of the city to be down for training at 7 o’clock.’ They’re doing their two, two and a half hours training, having a meal, getting back into the car and back up to Dublin. There’s a mental time that is not captured in that number.”
Kelly echoes a warning by former Kerry captain Dara Ó Cinnéide in November that future generations may not be prepared to devote as much of their lives to the inter-county game as those now.
“Amateurism is what the games are about but the way the games are played and the developments that have taken place has given rise to the current situation and I suppose the question is who is taking control and potentially reining it in? Who is asking is this the direction we want the games to go in? If you continue on that upper trajectory, you are potentially going to see more players dropping out of the games.
“Plus, an important point that is often overlooked is we don’t know what future generations of players are going to do. Current and past players might have been able to give the commitment levels up to now but who is to say the future generations are going to want to do that because there are going to be a lot more competing factors on those individuals. Time constraints, more interested in going travelling... if you do the analysis, that is the future threat.”