News Colm O'Rourke

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Should the U21 and minor championships be scrapped? Yes, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 20/01/2008 | 00:00

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The day will come when a young player will sue his county board for not looking after him when they should have known that the training and playing regime would do a young player harm. Ignorance is no defence.

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Different year, same problems. The issues for present debate are Cork, next week's Special Congress and the proposals on discipline.

Things may change slightly, but the heated views on many of these topics are not a signal of division but rather much more a sign of a healthy organisation. Any sporting body where there is continuous agreement is stagnant, in the same way a continued failure to agree on anything is just as damaging. Present debates show many with considered positions and sound reasoning, others just fear change.

Next weekend will see a Special Congress to discuss motions put forward by committees on club fixtures and player burn-out. There is much in common in the reports, even if the two committees were entirely different.

My minor role was being a member of the so called burn-out committee. This experience was an education, if somewhat disturbing. Much of what shocked was the medical evidence which was put before the committee, evidence of a massive increase in injuries being suffered by young elite players. And it was not from some outside agency that all these serious injuries were being identified but from Doctors Pat O'Neill and Gerry McEntee, both All-Ireland winners with a lifetime of service to the game. Their message was very simple: there is a crisis and something has to give.

Over the last couple of weeks members of the committee have attended meetings of the provincial councils to go through the report in detail rather than the simplified version which is doing the rounds, namely should U21 and minor be amalgamated into an U19 competition.

At these provincial meetings, the shift in opinion when Pat O'Neill presented a slide show of the common new injuries in young players was quite noticeable. Not that they are the sole preserve of the GAA but there is a quite unhealthy bias in favour of the GAA and footballers in particular towards overuse injuries.

These conclusions from eminent GAA doctors were further backed up by research from Lynette Hughes, who is doing a PhD on injuries suffered by 500 Gaelic players. Attempts at discrediting this research are both inaccurate and insulting. All GAA people should be welcoming such research -- no decision on any part of the organisation should be made in a knowledge vacuum.

The conclusions from this study, which are also backed up by Phil Glasgow of the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, point clearly to the fact that there is something seriously wrong in the way elite GAA players are being treated. The findings are that this group suffer from physical injuries and mental exhaustion which impacts on their social lives and education to a greater extent than other field sports. Not everyone, of course, but an alarming percentage.

What should any committee do armed with this information? Ignore it or make radical proposals to try to do something about?

The proposals are hardly radical either when they are only for a two-year experimental phase.

Many who are opposed to change have latched on to the idea of amalgamating minor and U21 into an U19 grade; and that an U19 could not play inter-county senior; and that freshers in College could not play on the senior team. I just wish this change came in last year and that Shane O'Rourke was ineligible to play for Meath. He has plenty of time; to me it would show a healthier sport if he was playing at 29, not 19.

And I would be delighted too if there was no minor competition. Very few seem to understand the mental and physical demands it places on young men, the pressure and stress it puts them under as they prepare for their Leaving Cert and the undoubted fact that it contributes to the gap in performance between boys and girls. It is the responsibility of adults to protect the best and most talented. It most certainly won't be done by team managers -- the reality is that the vast majority of managers sing off their own hymnsheet. So the only way forward is to legislate. The arguments for retention of the U21 grade include popularity, an avenue for underage players to move on to senior and so on. Set against the proven excesses, they hardly stand up.

Many have argued that the weak point of this whole document is that there is little tampering with third level colleges whose activities take place in autumn and winter. There is validity in this and there will be moves for the higher education authorities to improve things on their patch.

Some of these involve bringing forward dates of their main competitions and pulling out of the provincial tournaments being played at the moment. Perhaps Eamonn Sweeney was being flippant in commenting on these pages last week that there should be no third-level competitions as they involved mainly those who play with their counties anyway. That is a bit wide of the mark.

In reality, there are something like 46 third-level colleges playing football involving thousands of players, from fresher level to senior, the vast majority of whom will never wear a county jersey. They want to play as a social outlet, as an opportunity to make friends and because they like playing a game. In some universities, like UCD, which has over 25,000 students, the GAA offers a barrier against the loneliness of a massive college.

That is in itself important, but third level is increasingly the breeding ground for top players, coaches and administrators. There is some anecdotal evidence that some colleges are contributing to burn-out through manic training regimes instead of teaching best practice, but anything other than the increased cultivation of this sector would be the greatest folly.

Yet if the young elite players were asked themselves about these changes they would in general dismiss them out of hand. In fact, my own son commented that the only one he saw suffering burn-out was me, from driving around the country looking for support -- and he hopes we fail too! Another case of players needing to be protected from themselves.

These proposals will save county boards a lot of money in reduced medical and travel expenses while helping clubs by making their star players available to them more often. Maybe someone has better ideas but I have not heard any and doing nothing is not an option.

It is a certainty that sometime soon a young player will sue a county board for abuse -- and that is the word -- for not looking after them when they should have known that the training and playing regime would do a young player permanent harm. Don't think it could never happen in the GAA, it is happening in other sports throughout the world and ignorance is no defence.

If these proposals for a temporary trial period are not going to be carried then someone better come up with a better alternative -- and fast.

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