Friday 28 April 2017

Duffy dragging GAA into modern age after century of pastoral tranquillity

thecouch@independent.ie

Director General of the GAA Páraic Duffy. Photo: Sportsfile
Director General of the GAA Páraic Duffy. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

In all the sound and fury generated by the new departure at Congress last weekend, perhaps the most persuasive objection came from Babs Keating. It was certainly the most plaintive. "The winter is going to be too long," lamented this venerable champion of Tipperary, this shoeless Setanta of the Golden Vale, this living incarnation of Knocknagow - God bless the mark.

Now, of all the dubious motivations attributed to Páraic Duffy, we doubt it was his intention to extend the dark season any longer than its already protracted duration in the Irish calendar. And despite the considerable political skills he demonstrated in navigating his new proposals across the GAA's treacherous chess board, we doubt too that the Director General's powers also extend to climate control.

If they did, the progenitor of the Super 8 concept would be something of a superhero, rather than merely a mild-mannered sports administrator. Then again, last weekend he metaphorically shed the grey suit of his calling and re-emerged in a caped costume of some sort. Because Duffy showed a degree of courage and leadership that is not common in that same calling. He showed a steely conviction in his own ideas. Whether one agrees or not with his plan, this much cannot be denied.

Everyone agrees it is not enough. Duffy himself concedes it is not enough. But rejecting it outright on the grounds that it doesn't address every problem is to fail to take it on its own merits.

What does it seek to do? It seeks to increase the volume of games among the top Gaelic football teams in the country. Everyone is also agreed that the best promotional tool for the sport, as in all sports, is the best players and the best teams. Unlike other sports, GAA fans do not get to see the top teams playing against each other on a regular basis.

Since the resurgence in prestige of the league over the last 10 years or so, the chorus has gone up season after season: why can't we see the Division 1 teams playing against each other more often? How come we see this in the GAA's secondary competition, on heavy pitches in bad weather, but not in its primary competition at the height of summer? Some of the best games every year happen in the league. Come championship, the best teams are kept apart until the semi-finals and final; sometimes they don't clash at all. One hundred years of tradition ordained that it be so.

But all major sports, from soccer to cricket to rugby union, have all had their traditions upended in one way or another over the last 20 years. There are tectonic forces at work in society and capitalism that have dragged these sports into their gravitational orbit. Television, corporate money, the internet, societal trends, demographic movements, urbanisation and economic policies have coalesced into a global force that is much more powerful than the national governing bodies that run these sports. It is more powerful than the flagship international bodies such as FIFA, the IOC, the International Cricket Council, World Rugby and the IAAF.

All of these sports - and the American behemoths too, such as basketball and gridiron - have had to make major changes to keep up. Some have been more successful than others. All have endured upheavals big and small, local and global.

And the GAA, despite occupying a tiny corner of this universe, has not been sheltered from these forces either. Like those other governing bodies, it too has been dragged into maelstrom. It doesn't have a choice but to change and adapt. After a century of pastoral tranquillity, it had to wake up. And so far, overall, it has done a good job of riding these rapids. It has more than stayed afloat. It has prospered.

The rate of change has been accelerating over the last two decades. It will accelerate further in the decades to come. Duffy has seen the writing on the wall. This is the context behind the much-resented TV deal with Sky Sports, for example. And it is the context behind his re-structuring of the football championship. More top-level games, more money, more media exposure, more crowds. This initiative is not a cause but an effect; it is a necessary reaction to a changing landscape that is much bigger than merely the indigenous sports of a miniscule country on the edge of Europe.

Hemmed in by the checks and balances of the GAA's political structures, and by communal loyalty to the tried and trusted templates, he did not have room for radical manoeuvre - and maybe he didn't want it either. This capsule of change is only a small part of a wider jigsaw that will have to be completed over the coming years.

Clearly the most urgent problem is the sprawling mess at club level, where the fixture dysfunction is spreading like knotweed. Duffy has tried to ameliorate it by moving the All-Ireland finals forward from September to August. Hence the "long winter" dreaded by Babs.

The Super 8's many opponents argue that it will only exacerbate the crux at club level. But Duffy at least has addressed one part of the problem. The next great reform has to be enacted at the bottom of the pyramid.

But if, according to cliché, the rot starts at the head, then this looks like a decisive act of re-generation.

Sunday Indo Sport

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