Eugene McGee: Youngsters quitting GAA in droves -- who'd blame them?
Is there any fun left in Gaelic football for players any more? It may seem a silly question, bearing in mind the hundreds of thousands of young people who play and love the sport but, unfortunately, it is a question that does need to be addressed.
In recent months we have had a whole series of reports involving how football is organised, played, promoted and coached which certainly reflects a major culture change.
The abuse of players through over-training, inadequate rest periods , ridiculous match scheduling and lack of consideration for the needs of players' everyday lives are the main problems.
Why are there more serious injuries in football nowadays than ever before?
At this time of year we get horrific fixture making that would not be tolerated in any other major sport anywhere -- we have players being asked to play three times in eight days.
But even more serious is the irresponsible action of people in charge of teams who behave in a totally selfish manner regarding training and matches -- at the expense of players.
There are players who are asked to train for third-level teams because this is the lead-up time for the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups. At the same time, county managers are insisting they have full use of their players. This is bad enough when the county players are senior grade only, but a huge number of players are also involved with their U-21s.
So we have plenty of examples of students taking part in training at one time of the day and senior or U-21 training later on. This of course involves travelling, often 100km-plus round trips and returning to base after midnight.
A more serious development in recent years has been the exploitation of secondary school students.
Firstly we began to see examples of star teenage players being actively recruited by some leading schools to 'transfer', in a bid to win trophies. Repeating the Leaving Certificate to enable this to take place is common these days.
On top of that, we have examples of school teams being brought in for training at 7.0 in the morning, which seems grossly unfair on young men who should be devoting their main activity to preparing for the Leaving Cert exams.
Which brings us to county minor teams and their managers/coaches, who in many cases are a law unto themselves.
Minor panels are being brought together as early as November, and training has started to include strength and conditioning work in gyms.
The GAA has a rule forbidding minor training until after March 1 but, as usual, this is totally ignored.
There was a useful example recently when we learned of a clash between a county minor manager and college trainers, and we can see examples of this all over the country.
I'm amazed at this bitter wrangling in the name of sport -- something that could affect the enjoyment of what should be the happiest sporting days of a player.
At long last, parents of teenage players seem to be waking up to the reality of what is taking place, and some voices are being raised in protest.
I heard of a minor manager last year who issued ultimatums to four young men five days before the start of their Leaving Cert -- either turn up for training tonight or you are off the county minor panel.
It is not nice to describe any GAA person as a lunatic, but is there any other description suitable for this manager?
Parents need to take a stand in these situations, but they need more support from strong GAA leaders around the country as well.
There is a proposal going forward this year to change the minor grade from U-18 to U-17, which would hugely reduce the numbers having to juggle inter-county football with their Leaving Cert.
It will be interesting to see if GAA delegates opt for this. Player welfare is at stake in this, so let's see what officials really think about welfare.
Playing the inter-county U-21 competition in the spring is heaping huge additional pressure on young players and, again, some U-21 managers started training last October or November, against GAA rules also.
Should U-21 players be asked to play on Wednesday nights and then play a National League the following Sunday, while at the same time being court-martialled by at least three different managers -- senior, U-21 and third-level -- if they do not turn up for all training sessions?
That's what I mean about the fun going out of the game. All players love to play matches above all, but there are ridiculous demands being made nowadays.
Dr Niall Moyna, an expert in fitness and sports medicine, regularly produces scary facts about the damage all of this madness is causing to footballers' bodies -- short-term and long-term -- but it seems those responsible -- managers, coaches etc -- mainly only pay lip-service in their thirst for more and more training.
There are of course notable exceptions from managers who study these things and take the necessary action, but they are rare enough.
County boards should have a duty of care in these matters to prevent this exploitation of young men who initially love Gaelic football.
No wonder there is a huge drop-out level among footballers in their late teens.
Would you blame them?