It’s August. Liam MacCarthy will winter in Limerick, Sam Maguire has gone to Kerry, Meath are the ladies’ football champions and by next weekend either Kilkenny or Cork will be camogie queens. The sky hasn’t fallen in. The sun still sets and rises, children still wear their favourite GAA jersey.
Listening to some of the most well-known GAA pundits in recent weeks decrying the new calendar, you’d be forgiven for thinking the world was going to stop turning. The GAA season changed enormously this year, in an effort to allow more fair play to the thousands of GAA members.
The club player now has some kind of schedule. Some have taken the opportunity to travel, following a rite of passage denied to so many young inter-county stars over the years due to a prolonged season. We’re now seeing young people making use of their time off to see a bit of the world, play a bit of ball and return in time to play club championship.
The GAA is unique. Talented players live the lives of elite athletes but with amateur status. So they have to study or go to work when professionals get paid to recover. Pride of the parish trumps all, and it’s very hard to go against that tide when people feel very strongly that nothing else could ever be more important.
Look at the outcry over the weekend when Galway talisman Shane Walsh requested a transfer to a Dublin club while based in the capital for studies. Some called him a disgrace to his parish and his sport, others said he should be forced to play for his club, regardless of his wishes. Force him to travel at least two hours each way to attend training and games for a sport that is supposed to be voluntary?
The country is littered with young people who tried to do it all and paid the price with their bodies and minds
A 2018 ESRI report found that the average county player was giving 31 hours a week to Gaelic games. The longer the season trundles on, the more miles on the clock. When you’re fitting those hours in around study or work, burnout and injury are inevitable. Imagine being Luke Keaney from Donegal, who had to finish playing at the age of 24 due to irreversible hip damage, not helped by long commutes from Dublin and Belfast to Donegal for training, with little time for recovery. Club, county, college. They all wanted a piece of him.
He’s just one example. The country is littered with young people who tried to do it all and paid the price with their bodies and minds.
The same report said that players’ mental well-being was above the threshold deemed to be a risk factor for depression, but crucially, they scored lower than the general population when compared with people of a similar age. They compromise their relationships, sleep, education and downtime. They do it because they love their sport, but they need to be protected too.
Most players said they were happy to make the commitment, but this can’t be taken for granted. Especially when, for so many, there’s very little hope of a possible big prize at the end of it all. Giving what essentially adds up to the hours of two full-time jobs means basics to stay well – such as a decent amount of sleep and rest – are lost.
Pundits and people with platforms need to remember this when calling for a longer season or ripping players apart when they make decisions for themselves. We’re not entitled to more championship build-ups and discussions just because we’re used to it. Especially when we have evidence that it is potentially detrimental to players’ health.
Maybe I missed it, but I’ve yet to see one current inter-county player disagree with this new season.
The people who seem to object the most are also the ones who will have less airtime and fewer opportunities to be making appearances at events.
Some can’t have thought through the positive impact this schedule has on player welfare.
Perhaps the split season isn’t the big downfall of the GAA, but a lack of quality match-ups. That lack of engagement has nothing to do with these games being played in May or early June, but due to the uncompetitive provincial championships. People just don’t want to fork out scarce cash to watch Kerry beat Limerick in a Munster championship game.
Semple Stadium’s 11,000 terrace tickets sold out in 11 minutes when they went on sale before the Munster Hurling Final clash. The Ulster Final in Clones also sold out, but not many other football games went near a full house until the business end of the championship. Watching two spiders race up a wall is more entertaining. As is a competitive rugby contest. Or soccer. Or any other sport. The GAA is killing itself by persisting with outdated structures. There has been so much talk about the lost shop window of September All-Ireland finals.
The Premier League finished in May and it’s restarting next weekend, so if anything the GAA had a clear run at it this summer.
The current arrangement isn’t set in stone. This year will be reviewed, and next year will be different again, in the hopes that the country’s largest sporting organisation can finally settle on a format that pleases most of the people most of the time.
We should probably wait until the year is done before we start the postmortems. Opinion shouldn’t carry more weight than evidence.