Wednesday 22 November 2017

Time to face harsh truth of inter-county obsession

Black card was just first battle in struggle to reform Association and retain club players, writes John Greene

Referee Brendan Rice shows a black card during the O'Fiach Cup final between Armagh and Derry. Photo: Paul Mohan
Referee Brendan Rice shows a black card during the O'Fiach Cup final between Armagh and Derry. Photo: Paul Mohan
John Greene

John Greene

In the days immediately after the GAA's annual Congress voted to introduce the 'black card', one word kept cropping up: Emotion.

It had been an emotionally-charged debate in the weeks leading up to the vote; speakers in favour of the black card had used emotive language; and some were visibly emotional when the result -- 71 per cent in favour, 29 per cent against -- was announced.

This was an unexpected victory. The Football Review Committee had taken heavy fire as influential figures opposed change, but there was a shift in the mood late on the night before the vote and this continued into that morning, and then on to the floor of Congress.

The committee, under the chairmanship of Eugene McGee, had penned 21 motions for Congress, but this was certainly the most high-profile. Arguably, other proposals put forward by the committee to help improve Gaelic football would have had a more profound impact than the black card, but it was this which became the cause celebre. So, as it was adopted, the introduction of the mark and a rule allowing the ball to be brought forward a punitive 30 metres if a player prevented a free being quickly taken were regrettably rejected.

That it was such an emotional happening for those involved seemed strange at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight it's a safe bet that McGee and others knew there were bigger matters at stake.

In his Irish Independent column two days after the vote, McGee wrote: "Sport is all about emotion and what was happening on Saturday was seen among the vast majority of Gaelic football people as crucial to the future development of the great game that we all have inherited."

There was more to come. The FRC's second report, published earlier this month, allows us to view its complete body of work in a slightly different light. From the start, the FRC engaged in a consultative process and considered thousands of submissions on all aspects of Gaelic football, from the well-being of the game itself to how it is structured and the challenges faced by the club and inter-county scene.

In many ways the second instalment is of even greater importance. But -- as McGee and Co knew last April -- it would not have been possible without what happened at this year's Congress. In tackling some thorny issues in how the game is currently played, in getting a debate going on cynicism and in attempting to speed up football, the FRC put down a marker.

Bigger sacred cows have been challenged this time: the provincial championships, and the inter-county season, neither of which is sustainable in the long term if the Association is to reverse worrying trends which are coming to light.

The inter-county scene in the GAA has become a behemoth, it is almost too big. Yes, it is tremendously successful, but at what cost?

It's hardly surprising that proposals to tinker with the provincial championships and for a central committee (the CCCC) to co-ordinate fixtures at all levels -- national, provincial, county, club, third level and schools -- were immediately condemned. Yet, as dramatic as they might appear, it is likely they were watered down somewhat to make them a little more palatable, because administratively the GAA remains wedded to its way of doing things. Even when all the evidence is screaming to the contrary.

In the next year or two, we are going to hear a lot more about the future of the provincial championships and the state of fixture planning across all areas of the GAA. Radical changes are needed in both, but the GAA's wheel of change turns slowly. The latest set of FRC recommendations should start the debate.

Because there is no getting away any longer from the fact that clubs are being squeezed at the top by the sheer scale of the inter-county game and its demands, and also at the bottom by the impact of dramatic social and economic turmoil. If this is allowed to continue unchecked, the consequences will be severe. As wake-up calls go, the recent ESRI/Irish Sports Council report entitled 'Keeping Them in the Game' was a pretty stark one for the GAA: More people drop out of football and hurling in early adulthood than in any other major sport.

And where this really hits is right at the heart of the Association, the clubs. Here is where the real pressure point is and the suspicion is this is at the core of the FRC's thinking, in both reports.

The ESRI report looks at reasons why so many people drop out of sport between the ages of 18 and 22 and there are, of course, factors across society which affect all sports. Naturally, the GAA -- as the largest of the sporting bodies -- will be hit more than others.

"Adults in Ireland drop out from sport and exercise activities more frequently than they take new ones up," says the report.

The two greatest peaks in drop-out from sport are at 18 and in the early 20s, and football and hurling suffer the most -- up to 50 per cent over a three- to four-year period.

"Work and family commitments feature strongly in reasons that drop-outs cite for having given up all types of activities. For team sports, many participants also give up the sport when they leave school or college. Other life changes matter too, such as relocations, losing touch with people, or coping with organisational changes in sporting opportunities.

"Interestingly, all of these reasons for dropping out apply more to Gaelic games than to soccer, suggesting that the former are less easy to

continue with when young adults encounter change in other areas of their lives. The strong local loyalty that GAA clubs build up, while in many ways beneficial, may make it harder to continue playing the sport following such a change."

But the drop-out rate in football and hurling is also heavily influenced by internal forces, none more so than the failure of so many county boards to provide an adequate number and frequency of games for the majority of their players -- something caused directly by downward pressure from the inter-county scene.

The greatest service the FRC performed was that it shone a light on areas of the Association that needed to be exposed to make football better and, over time, most of its recommendations will creep into the game.

There is no doubt that the resistance will be greater second time around but, in time, many elements of the second report will have to be faced up to.

Something else which must be faced up to is the notion that hurling is somehow immune from the problems which the FRC sought to address. For a start, 'Keeping Them in the Game' clearly shows that hurling and football are similarly afflicted when it comes to drop-out rates, and there are also issues within the game itself, particularly around discipline and cynicism.

A new GAA president will be elected next year to take office in 2015, and whoever it is should have the formation of a hurling review committee at the top of his list.

Irish Independent

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