Eugene McGee: Exploitation of third-level players is the biggest scandal of today's game
Published 14/01/2013 | 05:00
At the present time, we have a flurry of GAA activity on the inter-county football scene as counties get ready for the new league campaign and, as always in the months of January and February, these competitions expose one of the greatest scandals in Gaelic games.
This is the abuse of young players generally aged 19 to 22 who are students at third-level colleges, which would include more than 60pc of players in that age group.
Every year we get horror stories of the exploitation of these young men as several different team managers compete for their attention and loyalty.
These stories have been well documented in recent years and have also led to a special committee being formed some years ago to deal with the issue, which is usually referred to as burnout.
Dublin's Dr Pat O'Neill chaired a high-powered group, including many medical people and they published a damning report on the abuse of these players by over-use.
Sadly, like many GAA reports, the findings were not acted upon to any significant degree and in the meantime the problem has got a lot worse.
The genesis of the problem is simple enough. Third-level players have the pinnacle of their season usually in the second half of February, therefore they must apply themselves seriously to training with their colleges.
But at the same time, the inter-county season is starting up and, inevitably, many of the student players are on county panels.
Immediately there can be a conflict situation when the respective managers compete for the attention of players.
Practically every county team includes student players and, while some county managers are sensible enough to work out a reasonable arrangement with the college manager as regards sharing their time, many others are not.
The decision in recent years to include third-level teams in the four provincial tournaments in January has seriously aggravated the problem and in Ulster there was open war when some county managers demanded students play for their county rather than their college.
An a matter of principle, Queen's University, Belfast pulled out of the McKenna Cup rather than field a seriously weakened team because a couple of counties insisted that their players play with the county team.
But it is the training demands that really cause the burnout. In January-February, college players often train at least once per day. County managers can then demand that these students travel to their home county, often a round trip of over 200 miles, to train that night.
This is downright dangerous athletic and mental activity but the GAA seems powerless to stop it. Even worse occurs in February when, with both those demands on players already, the U-21 championship in Ulster and Leinster commences.
This can see U-21 student players lining out for their county senior team at the weekend and their U-21 team and college games during the week – on top of the all the travelling and training.
This is insane behaviour for young amateur players whose main life function at that time is actually to get academic qualifications which hopefully will provide them with a career.
Because the damage created by this clash of demands on young players is not immediately obvious, GAA people seem content to ignore the problem and move on to the rest of the season but of course lasting damage is often done, particularly in relation to injuries, which cannot receive the proper rest periods in the early part of the year.
We can only imagine the damage done to the academic careers of the students also but many managers couldn't care less about that, which is very sad.
Some student players do take a stand and confine this period to their college activities but there are examples too of these players being victimised as a result later on.