Friday 24 February 2017

Joe Brolly: Time is running out to save the GAA from going the same way as rugby, soccer and the United States of America

Joe Brolly

‘Day by day, we sell more of the GAA to the commercial world’ Picture: Sportsfile
‘Day by day, we sell more of the GAA to the commercial world’ Picture: Sportsfile

Last Wednesday was a great day for bricklayers. Shortly after the result was announced, I got a text from one of the Craigs from Dungiven saying "Hi sir, you wouldn't have a phone number for that Trump man, we want to put in a tender for that wall."

Of course, the new President will be wanting to plaster it as well. After all, Trump's walls are always "beautiful, unbelievable, the greatest walls anywhere, anybody will tell you that, my walls are so great, they're incredible walls." Which might explain why the Carndonagh plasterers in New York were celebrating in Rosie O'Grady's on Wednesday night as though they'd won the North American championship. They mightn't be celebrating long.

On RTE radio on Thursday, Seán O'Rourke was interviewing the professor of psychiatry at Trinity College about the president elect. In the course of a fascinating analysis, the professor said "Democracy was invented to counter what's going on in the brain of people like Trump." He went on to describe him as "a very greedy man who wants more of everything for himself. A man who demands obedience. Someone who is utterly fixated on dominance and whose ego must be flattered."

How did he get elected? The answer is that America has become a seriously dysfunctional society. Unchecked elitism and commercialism have concentrated the wealth in the top one per cent. The traditional bonds of society have been destroyed. The spirit of togetherness and community spirit that prevailed until around the 1960s has disappeared. Individualism and greed has flourished.

Inevitably, the ordinary folk have been left behind. So, the once securely employed middle classes live in insecure fear. The old blue collar working class has disappeared, replaced by their dollar-a-day counterparts in Asia. The health system exists only for the wealthy, the only decent schools are private and 50 million Americans (roughly 20 per cent of the population) live in poverty.

A chilling statistic: as of 2013, an estimated 20-25 million Americans were living in trailer parks, with people living permanently in 8.6 million mobile homes (The 2013 US Census Bureau report). We are disturbed at the images of shanty towns in Calcutta and Brazil. Yet until now at least, we have overlooked what is really happening in America. The American dream has long since become a nightmare.

'Bowling Alone' the massive, landmark work by sociologist Robert Puttnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, charts this disintegration of American civic society in the last 40 years and shows how the US has become "a nation of strangers."

Based on a vast body of research, it demonstrates how quickly elitism and commercialism have destroyed community spirit. The title of the book is derived from the fact that America used to have tens of thousands of amateur bowling leagues, where people met after work, socialised and built civic spirit. Now, those leagues have all but disappeared.

The data illustrates how social activism no longer exists. It traces the shockingly swift decline of community organisations. It shows how Americans have become disconnected from each other and explains the "grievous harm" this has wreaked on the emotional and physical health of the nation. It is this civic vacuum that created President Trump.

His election was, as the comedian and film maker Michael Moore predicted it would be, "the greatest 'fuck you' in the history of politics." Moore has had a bird's eye view. He was born in Flint, Michigan at a time when the state was a manufacturing juggernaut. Everyone could afford a house and a car and education and health care. Community organisations flourished.

But since the Reagan years, he watched all that sacrificed in the name of profit. The destruction of communities. The destruction of the once strong sense of solidarity amongst the citizenry. The politicians being purchased by the corporate world, then allowing their greed to flourish unchecked. Meanwhile, a make-believe America was created by the corporations and their PR people and the politicians. "The greatest country in the world. The home of the brave. The land of opportunity." Any criticism was attacked as downright un-American.

A similar picture emerges in the UK, where widespread participation, not just in sport, but in civic life, has collapsed. Like America, the engine room of that collapse is the prevailing culture of individualism, greed and disconnection. Trevor Ringland, the great Irish rugby international, political activist and lawyer has eloquently and repeatedly lamented how participation in rugby has collapsed since professionalism and exhorted the GAA to learn those lessons.

I was on a panel at the University of Ulster recently with Hugo McNeill, the Chief of Ireland's Rugby World Cup bid for 2023. The theme was that whereas the audience for rugby has sky rocketed, participation has collapsed.

In the GAA community, we say "that would never happen to us. We are the glue of Irish society." Yet the frightening thing is how quickly this disintegration has occurred elsewhere. The American trend is already well established here. The big corporations are paying virtually no tax. The citizens are paying for all the dodgy financial instruments and loan scams that put CEOs in helicopters and private planes, living lives that the Roman Emperors could not begin to imagine.

Disability services have been cut to the bone. Austerity has been foisted on us North and South, not on the financial corporations that created the problem. In the absence of regulation or any fair legal framework, those institutions may have been 'reckless' and 'secretive' about their dealings, but nothing they did was against the law.

America is not the only perverse, unjust, immoral state. Father Peter McVerry said on the radio recently that homelessness is now epidemic. There are around 1,500 homeless families in the Dublin city area, with almost 4,000 adults alone registered as living in emergency accommodation in the second quarter of 2016. Just think about that before you consider America's trailer parks and say to yourself it will never happen here. And what about the over subscribed food-banks all over the UK? Just yesterday, the Trussell Trust announced that they have distributed 500,000 food parcels to hungry English families in the year to date.

In our communities, up until the last 20 years, the GAA had been the main community group in the country. The cement of our society. So, traditionally we looked after each other in hard times. We see our journey as a shared one. We don't ask "What's in it for me?" rather "What can I do?" We have given our time for free.

But mirroring the wider problems in society, the GAA - day by day - is becoming more elite and more commercialised. Tempted by the money being brandished by corporations who want to own this flourishing "brand" (as the GPA call it), in time we become dependent upon it. The GAA's mystifying €6.5million a year deal with the GPA has to be paid for. The growing wage bill has to be paid for. With Croke Park setting the example, the county boards are following. In the end, we choose money over the greater good. Like America.

Last Sunday, Eamonn Sweeney considered the mysterious question of why Sky, for example, keep bidding for (and getting) the rights to our games, when no one watches, the vast majority of us oppose it and the decision to grant those rights is so obviously unprincipled.

His conclusion is that they will hang on in there, spending whatever it takes, until it becomes normal and then, one day not too far from now, they will own the rights exclusively. This is exactly what the plan is, supported by the GPA and, regrettably, the GAA. It is how capitalism works. Far fetched? Imagine 20 years ago being told that you couldn't watch Ireland playing the All Blacks unless you subscribed to BT Sport? Or European club rugby unless you subscribed to Sky or eir?

Day by day, we sell more of the GAA to the commercial world. In return, they own more and more of us. Sky, the GPA and its many partners, the cartel of boards and professional managers, the banks. It's the inevitable consequence of unchecked elitism and unprincipled commerce.

We look at the GAA now and see that if things continue as they are, we will soon be like rugby or soccer or any other professional sport. There is seething discontent amongst GAA people. We see the collapsing attendance at games. We feel the increasing disconnect. More and more we are mere consumers. Things are so dire that ordinary Gaels have been forced into setting up a Club Players' Association.

There is still time to save the GAA, but it is running out. We need a proper, formal, nationwide debate on the real issues affecting us in the modern world, instead of endless debates about irrelevancies like the black card. This debate must involve every club, county and member. A committee populated by the best minds should be established with a view to setting out a strategy for the next 20 years.

What does being amateur mean? How do we rebalance the Association in favour of the 99 per cent? Do we want to rebalance it? Should we permit professionalism? If so, how will that work? What is our social responsibility, if any? The ultimate aim must be the creation of a modern, properly regulated GAA with a clear set of principles and a clear purpose. The debate should be fearless and the dice should lie where they fall. That way, at the very least, we won't lose the GAA through default. And we might avoid becoming "a nation of strangers".

In October 1997 Andy Boschma, a 33-year-old accountant, donated a kidney to 64-year-old John Lambert, thereby saving his life. Boschma is white and Lambert is African American. They would never have met but for the fact that they were members of one of the few remaining amateur bowling clubs in Michigan. That they bowled together made all the difference.

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