Monday 22 January 2018

GAA's sacred amateur status at odds with rising professionalism

Kilkenny's Henry Shefflin is filmed by Sky Sports ahead of last week's Leinster SHC quarter-final against Offaly at Nowlan Park. Sky's arrival has again opened up the debate about the amateur ethos at the heart of the association. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Kilkenny's Henry Shefflin is filmed by Sky Sports ahead of last week's Leinster SHC quarter-final against Offaly at Nowlan Park. Sky's arrival has again opened up the debate about the amateur ethos at the heart of the association. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Wednesday, an interview at Royal Dublin with Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley is prefaced by an unexpected question.

"Well, what's your take on Sky and the GAA?" he asks, catching me off guard. I've just spent the morning 'cramming' on all things golf and Samuel Ryder and the man set to be at the epicentre of that trans-Atlantic shoot-out at Gleneagles in September wants to talk local.

Turns out our philosophies differ too. Living in Sunningdale, McGinley has been tickled by the number of English neighbours telling him they tuned into last Saturday night's broadcast from Nowlan Park. For all the gilded privilege of his day-to-day existence, he's still a devout GAA man. Son of a Donegal footballer and a more than decent player himself until a shattered knee-cap ended his Dublin dreams at just 19.

You probably don't need to meet McGinley to like him. He's, palpably, no Charlie Big Potatoes. Wherever he is in the world, if Dublin footballers are playing, he admits to being pre-occupied with how to access coverage. Even a non-Dub could respect that.


So, the combination of Sky's arrival and access to championship games on RTE Digital all represent good news for a man committed to spending rather a lot of time crossing international time-zones. But, beyond his personal circumstance, I asked McGinley what he saw as the benefit of spreading the GAA message to a global audience? In the context of an amateur game, who exactly gains from that spread – And to what end?

You see, it's the conundrum of all this zeal to broaden the GAA market. What is the long-term motivation? A truly global championship in which, say, New York or Sydney might reasonably aspire to reach Croke Park some distant September?

Or is it simply, as we are told, to facilitate ease of access for the great diaspora? Now, most Irish people abroad have long since sourced ways of seeing their counties play on a Championship Sunday, so, if the new arrangements mean they no longer have to do so in a pub now, well and good. But they're still compelled to pay a cover charge, just this one in their own home.

Paul couldn't really answer the question and, frankly, neither can I. Not, at least, in that context of players remaining amateur.

But it's been a really interesting week in the GAA. Less than 24 hours after Sky's inaugural broadcast, former Kildare star Johnny Doyle – in the role of co-commentator on KFM for his county's Championship clash with Louth – was scathing in his criticism of a Croke Park policy barring players from access to the field beforehand. "I just don't understand it," said Doyle, "when 80,000 people will be on this pitch for five nights of Garth Brooks!"

Later that evening, a member of Kildare's back-room staff tweeted a message from Croke Park, hash-tagged "disgrace," about players having to pay for their post-match meals. Referencing the Sky TV deal and Croke Park concerts for One Direction and Brooks, Barry Solan tweeted a picture of the menu, showing prices ranging from €19.50 for a three-course meal to €10.50 for just a main.

Soon after, he delivered a mild retraction. "To clarify: co board covers players food bill. Fact that they are not entitled to a meal after game for their massive efforts is the problem!"

On Wednesday, a newspaper carried a letter complaining about a tannoy announcement at Nowlan Park five minutes from the end of Saturday night's slaughter of Offaly, advising people not to come on to the field "as Sky Sports needs to conduct post-match interviews."

I, personally, didn't hear the announcement, but do you not detect something fundamental brewing here?


Last weekend, this column questioned the skewed principles of a GAA world in which amateur players face scorn for drinking alcohol the Monday after a championship defeat. Some of the subsequent correspondence received seemed to interpret said column as offering tacit support to the Tipperary hurlers who went on that bank holiday session.

It wasn't. It was simply asking if anybody recognised a philosophical conflict in the rising professionalism presumed upon a GAA life and the supposed sacredness of amateur status?

"Well, would professionalism really be the end of the world?" asked McGinley on Wednesday. Which, of course, is the tumultuous question.

And when you see Shane Lowry wear his Offaly shirt to Nowlan Park just days before teeing off in the US Open at Pinehurst; when you hear Brian O'Driscoll nominate Henry Shefflin as one of the greatest sports people he has seen; when you hear the Ryder Cup captain declare that nothing, and he stresses nothing, exercises his attention quite like a successful Dublin football team, then it is probably not unreasonable to ask it.

But there's the rub. For all the glitz and pay-per-view razzmatazz surrounding the modern county man, for all the fences going up to keep the public at respectful distance, for all the science, sports psychology and media evasion, he's still pursuing – by GAA definition – a hobby.

And they'd like us to believe he always will do.


Clarity needed on Keane's mooted Villa role

Martin O'Neill says that he still needs to establish "what sort of in-depth conversations have gone on" regarding the possibility of Roy Keane taking up a role with Aston Villa.

Does this not sound odd given that he's just spent a week with his assistant in America?

There is now a truly bizarre dimension to the speculation about Keane "doubling-up" as a number two to both O'Neill and Villa manager, Paul Lambert.

"I don't really know if this is something that he (Roy) is going to have a serious look at" says the Ireland manager.

Why exactly not, Martin?

As the media fixated on this story in America, O'Neill joked that they seemed to consider him "a soothsayer". They didn't. They just happened, innocently perhaps, to assume that it wasn't a complicated process for a manager to seek clarity on this kind of matter from his assistant.

O'Neill, incidentally, admits that he has already spoken to Lambert about this, yet a deadline of July 31 has now been put on Roy making a decision.

Is the tail not wagging the dog here?

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport