The GAA's higher education body is on a collision course with colleges who see new restrictions on player eligibility as too punitive, writes Damian Lawlor
A CONTROVERSIAL new GAA rule on player eligibility for the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups is already under intense scrutiny.
Several leading colleges fear their aspirations will be hit by the directive which was drafted just two months ago by the Association's higher education body, Comhairle Ardoideachais.
The new rule limits players to a maximum number of six academic years, but more pertinently prevents students who take more than two recognised courses from participating in either marquee competition. It has already caused consternation among colleges.
Countless young players have taken first-year courses only to abandon them after realising they were not suitable. Many such students returned in the next academic year to take other courses, but if they want to pursue an HDip or master's degree the new rules will not allow them play in either competition.
The rule comes into operation following a three-year review of the Higher Education championships.
Already, though, two colleges have objected to its passing. Two separate amendments were proposed at the Comhairle Ardoideachais committee's recent AGM. UCC sought to enforce the maximum number of six academic years rule only, while UCD looked for an adjustment to the 'two recognised courses of study' ruling. Both of these were unsuccessful.
Last Wednesday night, Cork dual star Aidan Walsh and Donegal sub goalkeeper Michael Boyle challenged the rule and are currently awaiting a decision.
Both players are prohibited from playing in the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups with their college, DCU. Walsh is prevented from playing because he is on his third course, having dropped out of a building services and engineering course at CIT some years back. "My father is in business and wanted me to go down that line," he told the Sunday Independent. "I stuck with it as long as I could and tried to enjoy it, but after a few months I knew it wasn't for me and I left."
Walsh subsequently returned to CIT to earn a BBS in Recreation and Leisure but his progression onto another course, at DCU, a master's in PE and Biology, has left him ineligible for both competitions this season.
"The few months I spent in the first term has been deemed a full course and my appeal failed," he added. "I've only played two years of Sigerson Cup football and it really upsets me. I might not get the opportunity to play Sigerson again and Conor Counihan is concerned at the whole thing too because I'm up here in Dublin while the rest of the Cork boys are at home training with an intensity that I'm not going to get. It's a huge let-down."
Donegal sub goalkeeper Boyle is also considered to be on his 'third course' having dropped out of a course at Letterkenny IT some years back, before returning to education at Limavady College of Further Education en route to his current course at DCU.
"I was initially turned down by DCU when I first looked to enroll in the Sports Science and Health degree course so I went back to study at Limavady a year later, earned my place at DCU having reached the level-eight requirement," he says. "But now I'm looking at the prospect of watching the boys from the sideline because I'm deemed to be in my third course.
"It's desperate to miss the Sigerson, especially with the standard. Apart from playing alongside lads you've spent the last few years with, you put yourself in the shop window with your county manager looking on. It's a major disappointment."
While Walsh and Boyle held out some hope of playing, All-Ireland senior-winning hurler Seamus Hennessy never had any such outlook.
Tipperary's Hennessy is currently studying for a PhD in Leadership Development after successfully negotiating a degree and MS in International Management over the past four years. This is only his fifth year in the third-level system and he has not yet failed an exam. Having graduated from NUI Galway, he didn't even contact the GAA club at his new college, DCU, until he enrolled. Only when he made contact did he find out he was not eligible to play in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
"The rule shows there is a whole other element that the GAA has not considered," the Kilruane MacDonaghs player says. "The way I see it, this can be classified as a ban on a progress of education. I spent three years at undergraduate level, before reaching levels nine and, now, 10. And yet I'm outside the requirement to play. I have no problem with the six-year maximum rule, I think everyone agrees there should be a time limit but I'm now on my third course because I want to further myself and I find myself in this crazy situation.
"I came to this college because of a quality academic supervisor but my pastime is the GAA and I want to be allowed play it. I feel very strongly that I'm being denied the chance to do so. Why should I be stopped?"
It's reasonable to suggest that Hennessy – and others like him – is being unfairly punished. There has been anecdotal evidence in recent years that colleges have opened their doors to talented players who might not have earned sufficient academic credits and this rule is seen as a move to tackle that.
"I would say that the feeling among the third-level community in general was that some colleges felt there was not a level playing field," says Dr Cian O'Neill, who is course director for the BSc Physical Education in 2010 at University of Limerick and managed their Sigerson Cup side last year.
"We don't offer exact scholarships at UL, we work in tandem with Munster GAA and Cadburys who support young players who are already and enrolled at our college, having met the entry requirements.
"But when I was coaching the Kildare minors in 2010, I was asked for references here and there from about 12 players and it bothered me as it seemed certain courses were sticking out like the whole thing was a popularity contest.
"Over the years you'd have heard of fees and accommodation expenses being paid, and other perks. Maybe some colleges were a little bit loose, that stuff was anecdotally going around anyway.
"The only big issue I'd have with this new rule is that it shouldn't come into play until the 2013-'14 season. Students have already enrolled in 2012-2013 courses and paid fees on the basis that they would be playing in the third-level cups – they should be given a clear understanding, a year in advance, of what the new situation is.
"Every college in Ireland will be affected but a cap of six years' maximum involvement should have always have been there anyway. I think the whole system was let go a little bit out of hand a few years ago, maybe that's why the GAA are acting now."
Without scholarships, however, many students could not afford third-level education. Donegal's All-Ireland-winning captain Michael Murphy says people have to see the bigger picture. He is not yet affected by the regulation but if he stays any longer in the education system he will be. Murphy cannot understand why amateur players are being faced with not being let play their native game.
"With the economic position that the country is in, inter-county players are being told to go back to college and further ourselves, get a degree under our belts. Colleges have put support networks in place to help players avail of that and suddenly lads find themselves not allowed to play football. What will colleges do now? They'll deem players not eligible for support and funding in the future.
"This doesn't directly affect me at the moment but it's a greater GAA issue. Players are furthering themselves in college because there are no jobs out there."
Murphy totally rejected the suggestion that some colleges went above and beyond the norm to entice players into their ranks.
"It's all nonsense," he says. "Not even worth talking about. I can only use my own experience. I repeated the Leaving Cert to specifically gain entry to DCU for a Physical Education and Biology degree. I didn't meet the entry requirements in my first time doing the Leaving Cert so I went back to get the points needed. One of the first messages I got from DCU was if you're here to play football, forget about it.
"I'd like people to look at the exam results of scholarship students in all colleges. Our academic achievement rate is right up there."
There have been repeated calls in recent times for the GAA to introduce an age cap for both competitions, with 23 being suggested by some as a cut-off point to play in the Sigerson or Fitzgibbon Cup.
Other proposals have sought the introduction of a system used in the USA where a player gets eligibility for a maximum of four years. If a player is injured for a year it doesn't count. In a country where it can sometimes take students up to seven years to complete their courses, such a template has worked well.
"It's a stage we'd love to reach," says a GAA official. "The bottom line is that there is a minority of people who are unfortunate victims of this rule but it caters for 98 per cent of people. Rules won't suit everyone but five years playing is enough for anyone. College clubs can always bring motions to the next Annual Convention to seek to change existing eligibility rules if they are unhappy."
A number of other inter-county players across several colleges are now expected to appeal the rule which could further undermine it.
"One thing's for sure," says Dublin footballer and All Star Paul Flynn, "it certainly doesn't cater for kids who leave school at 18, not really knowing what they want to do. They put down a course and many of them will pull out after a while because they won't enjoy it. Down the line they'll suffer with this new ruling. I qualified as a plumber a few years ago. I went back to college to better myself with the downturn affecting my prospects of work. I've had to listen to people say I didn't have enough points to get into college but that's only the usual bluster.
"My point is that everyone should get a second chance and not be punished for it. For any 23-year-old to be hit down the line for a move they made years earlier, well that's not a good thing."