GAA's elite players can't have their testimonial cake and eat it

Paul Brennan - Backchat

On Thursday evening Colm Cooper will officially launch his autobiography 'Gooch'. Forty-eight hours later he will help lead the Dr Crokes attack in a county championship semi-final. And on October 27, two days before a potential Munster Club Championship quarter-final, he will host the first ever testimonial dinner for a GAA footballer or hurler, which is threatening to do more reputational damage than the €500-a-seat black-tie event could hope to pull in. Such in the way Cooper remains embedded on the Gaelic Athletic Association.

In his own words, Cooper can - when he needs to - be cold and calculating and unsentimental, but it would be fascinating to know how he views the reaction to his testimonial dinner, which has draw a spectrum of criticism from across the board, albeit mostly people with a public platform to air their views.

Hardly surprising, Joe Brolly has been quick to wade in with his views on Cooper's money making night out, which - according to Cooper himself - will be split three ways: Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin, Kerry Cancer Support Group, and Colm Cooper. Brolly's issue, which is shared by others, is mainly with the threat to the "selflessness and volunteerism" of the GAA, which he says is already being eroded by creeping commercialism.

Others have a problem with the charitable donation element of the testimonial and the lack of specifics as to how much the respective charities will receive. The organisers have suggested that until the net takings from the event, which will gross €250,000 from 500 paid for seats, it's impossible to put a precise figure on what the two charities will receive, which is probably fair enough. Of course, it would be neater if Cooper was able to say at last month's launch that the Children's Hospital Crumlin and Kerry Cancer Support Group would get €10k, €20k, €50k or whatever each, and leave people to work out how much Cooper might make from it himself. There wouldn't be too many people, we'd imagine, who'd have a problem with that.

For what it's worth, this column has no problem with Cooper having a testimonial dinner and making money for himself on the back of his reputation as the best Gaelic footballer of the last 20 years. At a very basic level what he's doing is a commercial venture, and if individuals and companies are willing to spend their money on a night out based around Cooper then fair enough. Cooper has given countless people - from Kerry and further afield - countless moments of sheer joy with his football skills, and if people want to pull out their wallets for one last thank you to Gooch, I, for one, have no issue with that.

People like Brolly and many others have every right to try and defend the GAA against commercialism, but Cooper is breaking no GAA rule regarding the Association's amateur status.

A little more transparency on the charitable donation from the start would, in hindsight, have made for a smoother path for Cooper in the lead in to his night of celebration, but the best he can do now is get a couple of those oversized cheques and make a public presentation of whatever it is he deems appropriate to give to two worthy causes.

What Cooper's pioneering move has done is open up some interesting discussion around GAA players earning some money off their status as GAA players. Cooper's former team mate Kieran Donaghy isn't too far off the mark when he suggested last week that some of the criticism of Cooper is down to good old Irish begrudgery.

Donaghy is right to suggest there's nothing wrong, in essence, in Cooper or another GAA player cashing in on their reputation as a top sports person, but in the same interview Donaghy has all but given his endorsement to paying players: turning the GAA into a professional sport for its elite players. And that is dangerous ground to enter, in this writer's opinion.

"For guys like (Cooper) or the likes of Stephen Cluxton, guys who've put 15 years into it and put their lives on hold and put financial gains on the back burner, they should be getting something from the GAA I feel when they retire. If a guy has put in 5, 10, 15 years, they should get a kicker from the GAA to say 'thanks for all the entertainment'," Donaghy said.

"And the guy above in Leitrim who's put 12 years into his county jersey is probably more entitled to it than we would be, I would say. But to give him thanks to what he did for his county for the 12 years, if the GAA were to give him five grand a year for 12 years, he might be able to pay off his mortgage, or put a deposit on a house that he hasn't been able to because he's been investing his life in his county.

"With the gates the GAA get from games, from concerts, I definitely think there could be a way for the men and women who put in an amount of time (to be looked after). Look at the Cork ladies footballers, some of them have nine or ten All-Irelands, they've been pouring into football and camogie for years and years. Should they not be getting a thank you from the GAA when they're finished?"

Donaghy's is a view no doubt shared by many others, presumably players mostly, and he's perfectly entitled to it. But there's quite a difference between a "thank you" from the GAA at the end of a player's inter-county career and a payment of €60,000.

For one thing there's the cost of operating a payment scheme like that. Sure, the Croke Park coffers aren't exactly empty of money but when multiples of thousands of euro start flowing in the direction of inter-county players then the cash stops flowing in other directions, like club grants, for example. And, yes, there is no GAA without the inter-county game, but then there's no inter-county game without the club game...

But what about the philosophy of the GAA and the amateur status it holds dear. Inter-county players - or at least the successful and popular ones like Cooper and Donaghy - will always do well out of the game: endorsements, a best seller, post-career media opportunities, etc.

The rest, like the guy in Leitrim might like a parachute payment but they don't expect it. Never have, never will. It might be a hopelessly romantic notion but we'd suggest that many more participate in the GAA 'for the love of the game' than for any monetary reward than might come their way.

Best of luck to any and every player who gets something more than that out of it - a sponsored car, a bit of appearance money, a newspaper column. And if a great player like Colm Cooper can squeeze a testimonial dinner out of it, more power to him.

But there's quite a difference between private citizens shelling out for champagne and dinner to celebrate Gooch and the GAA writing cheques at the end of every season for countless retiring players.


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