Colm O'Rourke: Where is the respect in a rule that sentences players to a life of slavery?
Rigid adherence by the GAA to the parish rule can no longer be justified, argues Colm O'Rourke
There is a speeding train coming down the tracks which has the potential to wreak havoc in the GAA. It is the parish rule which dominates all affairs in the Association. The traditional stand was that the parish you were born in decided your life for football or hurling purposes. There was no element of choice involved.
Recent cases in Kerry where young players were denied a move from their parish to play where they wanted ended up in the High Court; in Meath, a decision to allow underage players move to a neighbouring parish for football purposes caused a lot of controversy, while in Dublin the transfer saga of Eamon Fennell went on for years. These are only some of the cases which are bubbling under the surface in every county with officials at a loss what to do.
The GAA was largely built on parish rivalry in rural areas while cities like Dublin and Cork had fairly identifiable districts. It is all a bit more hazy now. Provincial towns have grown and the planning policy of many county councils is forcing people to live in towns whether they like it or not. Of course, it would make more sense from a social planning viewpoint if a small village was part of the planning of every rural parish.
Then with some new housing the school would be kept open, the local shop and post office could be busier, the pub could survive and there would be enough young people to keep the club competitive. Instead, the future looks bleak, with towns crowded while the country stagnates.
Into this mix are many new people who move into towns or to the outskirts of towns. When their children start playing football, many who are not traditional GAA families don't have a clue what parish they are in and are only interested in seeing their children playing with their friends.
Similarly, an increasing number of cases are arising where families live in one parish but have no other connection there as their children go to a school in a neighbouring parish. When football starts, and especially if some ability is being shown by a player, most clubs are reluctant to let that young player go.
In effect, rigid adherence to the parish rule is a modern form of slavery. Of course there is a transfer committee in every county but it tends to uphold the principle of the parish rule so players in extreme cases are faced with the choice of playing where they don't want to or not playing at all, a situation which is not as rare as you may think.
Most bizarre of all in some counties is a bye-law which states that a player who does not play for his club cannot play for the county team. This hung over Eamon Fennell and when Peter Canavan was a minor he had to play hurling for a club to circumvent this rule as his adult club were in dispute with the county board and were not affiliated. It is hard to credit that a club could actively intervene to stop anybody playing for their county, but it does happen.
In this way the parish rule is hung like the sword of Damocles over a young man's head -- either play with the club or you will not play at all even if you are the best player in the county. In fairness, Eamon Fennell was not treated in this way and if memory serves me right, David Hickey had similar issues back when he was a star player with Dublin in the 1970s.
It is also very strange that professional sportsmen have far more independence than amateur GAA players. The Bosman ruling in 1995 gave professional soccer players much more freedom in that they were entitled to leave their clubs free gratis once their contracts had finished. It gave all the power to the player in that clubs were no longer getting big transfer fees and either had to sign players to long contracts or sell them before the end of their contracts. Either way, it meant more money for the elite players.
In the GAA, it is the opposite. There is no freedom of choice. Some clubs are enlightened in their approach and will try to deal with a player who wants a move either at underage or adult level. If they can't find agreement, these clubs are smart enough to decide that a disenchanted player is not worth having, especially if they won't play. Other clubs just dig in.
It can result in petty vindictiveness if a club stops a player from playing because the club will not sign a transfer. Their argument is that the player can always play with them, but the reality is that once bridges are burned most players will just play something else like soccer or rugby rather than being messed around by a GAA club.
Many of those who favour retention of the parish rule at any cost argue that the occasional hard case makes for bad law. That is all fine for those enforcing archaic rules which deny freedom of choice and heap emotional stress on those involved and, in many cases, mean the sundering of relations between neighbours. In reality, the vast majority of players play with their local team. Most start and finish with their friends just as I did, while my son Shane plays with a different team and I could never see him leaving his club. So clubs fearing a run on their talented players are being over-pessimistic. Good clubs who look after their players have nothing to fear in embracing a more user-friendly transfer policy.
This is a national issue and a policy should be drawn up by Central Council or the Management Committee which takes into account the modern reality of population movements. The GPA should be getting some sort of position paper drawn up too from
the players' perspective. A national transfer policy should be along the lines that a player is entitled to a transfer within a county once, but the only other transfer possible would be back to his original club. It could help many rural clubs where sons of former players are stuck in towns and might like to go back to help a struggling outfit in an area shorn of population.
Even in Meath, where there has been rapid population growth over the last 20 years, there are clubs in the north of the county where the numbers are going down. Many will find it hard enough to survive as emigration casts a dark shadow.
A policy safeguarding the rights of players should read something like this:
The Association shall safeguard and promote the interests and well-being of all those under 18 years of age who are involved in its games and related activities. The Association shall take all practical steps to protect them from all discernible forms of abuse, from harm, discrimination or degrading treatment and shall respect their rights, wishes and feelings.
No, I was not clever enough to come up with that. It is part of the Official Guide, page 8 to be precise. Does anybody see a direct conflict occasionally between the parish rule and the line which says the GAA, in the case of underage players, "shall respect their rights, wishes and feelings"?
It is time for the GAA to come up with some new policy where players are not prisoners of a parish and where individual rights as laid down in the Official Guide are respected. And it is not the Official Guide which needs to be changed.
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