Thursday 23 February 2017

Winter ban goes from silly to serious

There is a line from an old German play, 'against stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain', and even though this is traditionally silly season in the GAA it is hard to remember a time when things were more ridiculous than they are now.

In the last few weeks we have had some daft suggestions from annual reports, a county board looking for fans to bail it out because it has been living beyond its means and, as Pat Spillane highlighted last week, idiot clubs going round the country offering money they don't have to managers.

But for the second year running, the farce surrounding the winter training ban has to top the list. The county boards all over the country that are openly giving two fingers to Croke Park on this issue should be penalised, but they won't be.

Teams are training and playing challenge games at the moment, in clear defiance of the ban, and this would not be possible without the support and assistance of county boards. These same boards will be handing down fines and suspensions to players and officials who break the GAA's rules during the course of next year and the irony of their actions will be completely lost on them. It's one rule for us, another for them.

The merits of the winter training ban are a separate argument. It was introduced to give players a break from the number of games and training sessions the average inter-county footballer and hurler takes part in each year. If an overwhelming number of counties believe this rule to be a nonsense -- and we have to take it that they do given that they are ignoring it -- then they are in a position to have it removed.

In the meantime, however, the rule is there and each county board has a responsibility towards the upkeep of the GAA's Official Guide. Officials are not in a position to cherry-pick those rules they like and those they don't.

And the rule is very clear: 'The months of November and December shall be closed months for all games involving inter-county teams and collective training for inter-county panels'.

But there is more to this issue than just the flouting of a rule. Last week, this paper revealed that many players were not being paid travelling expenses for training this month and, incredibly, we also uncovered instances of players not even being provided with basic requirements such as food and water by some ruthless county boards.

So, something that was done to protect players has actually exposed them to the back alley antics of times gone by.

But this paper's revelations this week signal a new low.

Last Wednesday night, a challenge game was observed by the Sunday Independent in Lucan between Roscommon and DIT. The Roscommon team featured several of its well-known regulars and therefore the county board cannot use the defence that this was a development squad in action -- something which is permitted under the rule -- and which was used successfully by Cavan last year to convince the GAA they had not broken the rule.

Over the last 18 months, all clubs and county boards have received severe warnings from the GAA on the issue of insurance for players. They have been urged to ensure that all players who take the field for club or county have been registered and, even more importantly, that all games have been sanctioned by the relevant authority.

There has been a tightening up in this area because of the level of claims against a policy which is barely viable as it is and clubs and counties have been warned that if a player is injured during a game which has not been sanctioned and which does not have an official referee, then that claim will not be entertained.

Because this game between DIT and Roscommon involved teams from different provinces, it required sanction from the CCCC to go ahead. The GAA has confirmed that it did not give permission for this game and that any player who took part in it was not insured.

This is a worrying development. It is highly unlikely that in the months of November and December, last Wednesday night's match was the only game of this kind to take place. One wonders if players, or indeed managers, are aware that when they take the field in these games they have absolutely no insurance cover if they sustain a serious injury which requires a stay in hospital and a lengthy absence from work. Can they rely on county boards to stump up, given some can't even find the wherewithal to provide water at training sessions?

The GAA has so far chosen to turn its back on the wholesale flouting of the winter training ban, but can it continue to do so in the knowledge that players are being put at risk to this extent? This, surely, is the worst form of exploitation. Players are players and at the end of the day they can't be relied upon to do the right thing for themselves and that is why there are structures put in place around them. If you stopped 30 players going out on a pitch before a game and told them that they were not insured if anything happened to them, how many would turn around and go back into the dressing room?

Director-general Páraic Duffy (pictured) has repeatedly given his backing to the notion of a winter training ban, arguing it is an important element of the GAA's player welfare strategy. "There is medical evidence in our sport as well as in other sports that our players need a rest," he said earlier this year.

As Samuel Johnson said, 'words are like money: there is nothing so useless, except when put to use'.

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