Saturday 23 September 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Biggest danger to GAA is that which comes from within

Loyal footsoldiers in the GAA are openly questioning the direction and policies being adopted. Photo: Sportsfile
Loyal footsoldiers in the GAA are openly questioning the direction and policies being adopted. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The reaction to my comments on television last Monday about the drift of the GAA towards unfettered capitalism and elitism has been quite surprising, mainly because it was not something new. In fact, I was merely expanding on several points I have been raising on a consistent basis for some time.

Maybe it's that the uncompetitive championship so far has got people thinking, or maybe the penny has finally dropped that most of the great army of loyal footsoldiers in the GAA are openly questioning the direction and policies being adopted on their behalf.

The three main planks of my argument are based around the Sky deal, the GPA and the Super 8.

The Sky deal is a running sore and really grates with most people. To their eternal discredit, the voices of dissent were not raised at Congress. I have yet to meet a GAA official who is happy with it. Yet they act cowardly when in session with all the powerful men who run the GAA at the highest level. Many of these people are GAA lifers, they want to be on important committees in Croke Park. They don't rock the boat. Many others on the inside, who have positions of influence, want to run for president and they are not going to get that by openly questioning policy.

It's true some have been radical in approach and achieved a great deal, or at least started the train moving. Among them were Peter Quinn, Seán Kelly and Joe McDonagh. These are men who did not see the top job as an end in itself, but as an opportunity to do something about their vision.

If last Saturday's two quarter-finals were on free-to-air television, the viewing figures would have been something over half a million, especially with Dublin involved. On Sky they were a tiny fraction of that.

I was talking to a publican last week who was delighted the games were on Sky. His pub was packed. I was also talking to an old man who was in the pub. He was disgusted. He wanted to watch the two matches but he does not have Sky so had to go to the pub. By the end of the second match he said it was a fairly messy scene with too much drink on board for some while young kids wandered around. The atmosphere was noisy so he left and went home. The irony of the GAA forcing supporters into pubs to watch matches and having a clear stance on alcohol should not be lost on anyone.

This is not the Premier League, this is the GAA. We should be different. Adding to the Rupert Murdoch fortune is not our role. Of course the official line is that there should be competition in the market and the deal was not about money. This only makes it worse. A lot of good GAA people could live with the Sky deal if it pumped large amounts of cash into clubs all over the country. It isn't and it won't. It amounts to selling our soul for loose change. Our esteemed president has often said that not all our games should be free on TV. That is fair enough, but not showing them at all would be better than charging for them. In time this deal will be seen for what it is: a sell-out. It is not in the same league as NAMA, who have sold every bit of decent property in this country to foreigners.

Many have poked fun at my assertion that the GAA is a socialist movement. There is no incompatibility with this argument in a capitalist society. Socialism has a bad name but it amounts to the people owning the organisation, having it under democratic control and where the element of fairness applies to all. Does the Super 8 or the elitism of the GPA stand up to such scrutiny? Hardly.

The Super 8 favours the strong, who do not need more big games. The counties that need help are those at the bottom, where players are disenchanted and tradition, population imbalances and resources mean they have no chance of advancement. They are fodder.

It is an insult to most of those to suggest that they are not helping themselves. In most counties players have a very similar commitment to the GAA. It is best measured through their clubs, not the county team. Many players walk away from county football as they realise that there is no future, no chance of winning anything. It certainly does not mean that they do not love their football or that the county board or team management are making anything but the best efforts to promote the game. Players are too smart, they don't push boulders uphill or take bites out of stone walls.

The Super 8 format means that not only are the big teams playing more games at the cost of clubs, but a strong county could lose in their province, get through the back door, lose one game in the Super 8 and still win the All-Ireland. Is that what people want? This is further reinforcing the strong against the weak. A weaker county might take down a big one once. They won't do it twice and certainly not a third time. Look forward to Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone and Mayo in finals indefinitely. There will also be plenty of dead rubbers.

When the GAA devise a competition where all players get to play in Croke Park every year and have a chance of winning, I might give the Super 8 a guarded welcome, but it sounds too much like a money-making wolf dressed up in sheep's clothing. There are maybe six other counties who could possibly get up to the big-four level for a certain length of time. The rest are the sweatshop workers.

The other plank of my argument is the GPA. County football by its very nature is elitist but it does not mean that these players and this organisation should be above the socialist principles of the GAA. Would the €6m they are receiving be better off spent elsewhere? Should the Club Players' Association, which in many ways was spawned by the GPA, be entitled to some of it for representing 98 per cent of players in the GAA? County players need to be treated with proper dignity and respect, but I do not believe that this money is needed for that purpose and I really feel that all this cash in their coffers has created a culture of entitlement. That is not my idea of what the GAA is about.

The GAA is not some type of study on Darwin's principle. It is not about survival of the fittest, but survival of the weakest. It is not about draining the swamp, as Trump might shout. It is not about having a revolution, as Pol Pot did in Cambodia in the 1970s, where all the urbanites were sent to work in the fields and if you looked intelligent or had glasses you were shot. What we need is the rebooting of an organisation, which for all its greatness in community life has lost its sense of what it should be at the top.

The socialism I want is merely a reconnection of what the GAA has always stood for: competition, community-based, self-help, matches, rows, winning, losing, fairness, opportunity, equality, senior, intermediate and junior - and money is not God.

One thing that encourages me about the future is that incoming president John Horan is not beholden to anyone after his landslide victory. He will also have the courage to lead in a different direction. However, the danger is that the GAA has become such an animal that it is now almost unmanageable.

Like a giant ship it sails on, unable to change direction but hoping to avoid the icebergs. The biggest dangers, though - over emphasis on commercialisation, elitism and money, which could destroy volunteerism - are all within.

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