Dessie Farrell: Players' families are being devastated by gambling and we're only scratching the surface
In a wide-ranging and exclusive interview, Gaelic Players' Association chief executive Dessie Farrell discusses the key issues facing the GAA, its members and the GPA itself - from fixture reform to personal coaching and fears about player power.
VINCENT HOGAN: The last time we spoke, you talked of concerns for a growing gambling problem within the GAA and recent newspaper stories suggest it is not going away. Are the numbers that require counselling going up?
DESSIE FARRELL: "They would be. This year alone, we probably had 74 players who required counselling in various guises. Previously, depression was the biggest problem, but now it's gambling addiction.
"It's a major societal problem but, for some reason, I think sports people are particularly prone to it. Maybe because they have time on their hands, they're not out socialising with friends and they're obviously interested in sport. And if you want to gamble now, you can do it anywhere, any time.
"So we're trying to set up a programme in terms of awareness. We're using players who have come through problems themselves. Others might just see it as an issue in their own squads and want to get involved. We'll have that set up in the New Year and are christening it 'High on Life' as opposed to high on these addictive issues.
"Obviously all our work is confidential, but it's amazing the trouble that these young people are getting themselves into. We're dealing with a number of cases at the moment . . . players with families, maybe wife and kids and commitments, everything is compromised. There's a lot going on in that space and I still think we're only scratching the surface.
"If you've a problem with alcohol or with drugs, it quickly becomes very visible to those around you. But this is so insidious that people can't actually see it. Individuals can be digging themselves a big, big hole. And it has all sorts of psychological impacts afterwards when it gets to a point where, literally, families are being devastated."
Is that the most important work the GPA is doing at the moment?
"Well for the individuals, it's very, very important. Most of them are in a really dark place with this. They're fighting this demon. They have this addiction issue but there's often a huge financial implication to what they've done that lends itself to borrowing money and, often, from the wrong people. Which, clearly, brings you into a darker side again.
"But when you look at the breadth of our membership, over 2,000 players, it's still a small percentage. We're just trying to raise awareness that these years are the formative years for their careers outside sport. The decisions they're making now are going to have a huge impact on the quality of their lives. And the quality of their families' lives too. Sometimes young men don't necessarily see that.
"The blinkers are on. It's all about hurling and football and they're living their lives accordingly. We're saying, by all means be 100pc committed to your games, but be committed to these other important areas of your lives as well.
"Our personal coaching model is probably the programme that we're most proud of at this stage. Because it's bringing the players on this journey of self-discovery. So many of our players don't see themselves as being anything other than an athlete.
"For some reason when you take that away, either through retirement or injury or de-selection, it can be a massive issue for those individuals to deal with. This programme helps players understand who they are outside of the athlete. What they stand for, what their values are and ultimately what their ambition in life is.
"It puts a concrete plan together for them to have these parallel lives, this dual career as we call it. And getting the balance right in that dual career."
That programme is available to every inter-county player?
"Yes, every one. Not all of them take it up of course. Some operate fine of their own volition, but there is the sense that a lot of our fellas are just drifting through these years of their lives aimlessly. Because it's all about their hurling and football. We're getting some great results from players actually grasping this issue and understanding that there needs to be something for them beyond the games.
"For a lot of them, this is life-changing. They see things very differently. And, interestingly enough, a lot of them are performing better on the field because they have that balance. There's been a lot of research done in the southern hemisphere around the AFLPA and the New Zealand rugby players' association too.
"What we're trying to do is encourage managers and coaches to understand that concept a little bit better."
You've a bit of a challenge on your hands there?
"Big time. We've found it very difficult to engage managers around this. For them, it's all about performance on the field. Not so many are interested in the individual's performance outside the field. There are some enlightened managers out there who get it. I know from coaching myself if a young player understands that the coach or manager doesn't just see him as a player, a tool to help him achieve his goals, but sees him as a human being who has other issues to deal with in his life and takes that holistic approach . . .I believe he respects the individual an awful lot more and you're actually going to get an awful lot more out of the player as a result."
The inter-county existence now a wholly unnatural existence?
"Yeah and you're trying to get managers to think beyond their three-year stint or whatever."
Managers who probably feel they're fighting for their lives here?
"Yeah and that's their bottom line."
How far can demands on players go then? Does this issue worry you?
"It's a very interesting question. Five years ago I suppose we would have said we were at saturation point. But managers still expect more, supporters expect more, county officials expect more, the players themselves expect more, so it's this sort of incessant ambition and drive to want to be more successful.
"It's being driven by everyone. Ultimately, it's a choice a player makes at the end of the day. But he needs to be going into this with eyes wide open. We're saying be the best you can be on the field but at your peril neglect these other important areas of your life. Because you will rue the day.
"The games have never been more popular and, for us, it's just a case of trying to ensure that that balance is there in the players' lives. Because if it isn't, it could come back to haunt them."
What is your relationship with the GAA like at the moment?
"It's good. Obviously, presidents come and go and there's always a get-to-know-the-new-man period. Like sussing out a referee I suppose (smiling). Just finding out what his take on things are. But over the last number of years, our relationships with the presidents have been very good.
"And then you have the full-time executives we work very closely with. Páraic Duffy has been very good to deal with over the years. I have the height of respect for him."
Were you taken aback by the negativity at home towards the Fenway Hurling Classic?
"No, I wasn't surprised at all. When you're trying to be creative and see things differently . . . we view this as an investment in the future prosperity of the games themselves."
Are you saying minds are closed, that there is still a fundamental lack of trust in the concept of a players' body?
"Yeah, there's a little bit of that. In many ways, it's the fear of the unknown. There's always a tension between players and administrators in every game. I think the attitude is changing, that we're not necessarily viewed as the enemy anymore. But in some situations, it's still there."
This sense that there must be an ulterior motive to everything you do?
"Exactly. Some of the commentary around the Fenway game I found bemusing. Like we've made no bones about the reasons why we've gone to the US. It's to raise money. The GAA currently isn't in a position to fund the programmes that we have in a way that meets the level of demand from players. So we've two choices. We can go fight the GAA to get more money or we try to be creative.
"We don't want to have to tell a player, 'Sorry, we'll put you on a waiting list, you won't get access to that programme for another six months!' Or, 'We can't give you that scholarship!' Or, 'Sorry, you're going to have to wait for counselling for another three or four weeks even though you're badly depressed and there's serious issues going on in your life!'
"The option is simple for us. We need to come up with this money somewhere. So we've gone to the US. And one of the things we thought was wouldn't it be fantastic to bring a game of some description, not to the normal Gaelic Parks or the Cantons, but to bring it to a new audience. To do something different.
"That would allow us create a platform to build a meaningful relationship with the city of Boston and influential Irish Americans within who understand what we're trying to do and want to support us."
With a view to having this game every year?
"Possibly. We run a fundraising event every year in New York and it would be brilliant to replicate that in Boston. That's what the Fenway project has allowed us to do, start having those conversations with influential people of Irish origin in Boston.
"But then there is the wider issue of what the potential around this game is and how useful it could be for the GAA and the wider family in terms of building a relationship with the likes of Fenway Sports Management Group who are serious operators on a global level. I think they could teach us an awful lot in terms of the promotion of our game and the commerciality around our game.
"Then also there's the issue of a legacy for the local GAA scene on the ground. You know you had 29,000 people, many of them new to the game, witnessing it for the first time. And the feedback from those was amazing."
Did it make a profit?
"For us, it was about proof of concept. Fenway would have done very well from it. The big thing for us was getting them to agree to stage this game in the first instance. They would have viewed it as a big risk. They would have thought, 'Ok, we understand you did it down in Notre Dame . . .' And it was important to us to have that brand association as well.
"But 4,500-5,000 people watched that game. As a result of that, Fenway were willing to take a gamble on staging a hurling game. The understanding was that, if it worked and they wanted to do it again, we'd have a different type of business relationship around it. But they were taking all the risks, they were covering the costs of flying the teams over and putting them up and all that went with it.
"The crowd that turned up was amazing and it was broadcast on live TV over there which was really important too because that's bringing it to a much, much wider audience. Can that be the catalyst for something else in terms of our games being broadcast on the sports networks over there? Does that sow a seed for some of the bigger operators like ESPN or CBS or whatever?
"Would they be interested at some point down the line broadcasting our championships properly? I know for example the AFL have been very engaged in that whole idea for years and have that relationship with the (US) sports networks. So why wouldn't we? You think of the possible knock-on effects, not just in terms of the commercial perspective and revenue, but in terms of the games and participation rates and what not.
"So there's an awful lot of positive implications to being able to pull that project off successfully."
But you must have sensed the negativity towards it at home, particularly in light of the row?
"It was interesting to gets peoples' view of that in America. Because a lot of the people we were dealing with followed the media back home and were very taken aback by it. I wasn't surprised. Sometimes at home I think we can be very negative and cynical. You'd question the outlook at times.
"Over there, they have a very different view. The buzz in the stadium that day, the feeling in the aftermath, the way people spoke so effusively about the game it was ... it really was a great day for the Irish in Boston. It was a proud day for the Irish community. I know that many of them who've been out here for years brought American friends.
"So many of the Irish were able to bring those friends and say, 'This is the game I've been telling you about! This is part of us, part of our identity!' And to be able to witness it in an iconic stadium like Fenway Park . . ."
Did you get a vibe of negativity from the GAA themselves? There was that GPA comment after the game that they didn't envisage any official censures for the brawl, a comment which, apparently, antagonised the Association. Then the two county boards are subsequently presented with €5,000 fines for a game that, technically, wasn't even hurling. Is there not some tension on this between you and the GAA?
"I don't think so. I know we've been the driving force behind the whole concept but the GAA have been very supportive of it as well. You know any day you get nearly 30,000 people showing up to a GAA game in another country, it's a fantastic result whatever way you look at it. The GAA would see the opportunity in that as well.
"So, at the highest level, there wasn't that tension. They may, back in the day, have questioned where this is all going and probably asked us were we off our heads trying to build something around this. It was unfortunate that it clashed with Compromise Rules. But Páraic (Duffy) loves his sport in general and knows the Boston sports scene intimately and is very taken by the idea of building that relationship with Fenway too.
"So, at the highest level, no there's no tension around it. Obviously there was the brawl, but it's still very much in experiment mode. We're still trying to figure it out and, being there on the day, I know that we need to tweak some of the rules. But the basic format for what we're trying to achieve in that kind of venue, with the restrictions around pitch-size, I think the concept is very solid.
"It does definitely need more work. Then, on the other side of it, we've got to figure out where it actually sits in the rule-book as well."
Exactly. Is it not unreasonable for the county boards to ask why they should pay fines for a game that, in the strictest terms, wasn't even hurling?
"Yeah I can see that. But the county boards would have been very supportive of the concept as well. And it was a fantastic experience for the players, very different from, say, an All-Stars tour which is very much a let-the-hair-down type of venture. A pure reward.
"The culture around the Super-Elevens model is that players know they're going out as ambassadors for the GPA, the GAA, their counties and for the country itself. They buy into that. There's a lot going on and the schedule around it is quite compact. They would be very professional in how they carry themselves for those couple of days.
"The attitude of the players was impeccable and the county boards were great in supporting that and helping us to create that environment. So I'm sure they're asking themselves, 'What's this €5,000 fine about?' As they'd see it, everyone was going out putting their best foot forward.
"So to have to pay a fine after it doesn't make a lot of sense."
Do you see it happening again next year?
"Yeah. Fenway definitely want to do it again next year. They understand it will be a different kind of business arrangement. They could not have spoken more highly of the exercise from their perspective. Everyone went into it in the right spirit. 'Let's make a go of this because who knows where it might lead to in five or ten years' time?'"
"When you were actually there to witness the atmosphere and how the crowd engaged with it, like it was a special experience. There's something about the beauty of hurling and anyone who plays it at a serious level is almost a disciple of the game in terms of promoting it as something world-class that more people around the globe need to see.
"So we were able to tap into that attitude. The players were practising for it before they went over. Then they came over and were in the gym, they were doing recovery sessions after the flight, they had their nutritional plans, their team meetings, they had two to three team-meetings. It wasn't a jolly and I think that reflected in the game itself. It wasn't an exhibition, this was proper contest."
Do you have any sense of unease with what happened recently in Galway hurling and Mayo football? Where management teams have been ousted by the players after what had to be, by any reasonable judgement, considered successful seasons?
"I think this is something that needs to be dealt with in a professional manner and it hasn't been to date. Obviously we're a players' association and, when these situations arise, players come to us looking for advice and support. Because they can often feel somewhat isolated, that wagons are being circled.
"If there isn't that harmony there, players are asserting themselves more. Because they take a view that these years are precious. So if there's a breakdown, if for some reason they don't have belief in the management . . . it's been interesting that we've had two this year.
"That suggests to me that players are no longer going to just sit back and take this. That they want to try and address it.
"But everyone needs to understand that there's a human element on the other side too. And then there's the whole thing about how it plays out. One thing I was particularly taken with was the fact that, even though it's not nice business, I thought the players in both situations handled themselves really professionally.
"In the past, there might have been a lot of media commentary around what was going on, outlining the reasons for disharmony in the camp. And that can end up just being a pissing match for want of a better word because there's a character assassination of individuals involved. And that serves nobody well.
"We have said to the GAA there needs to be a proper framework put in place for the appointment of management teams and for the review of management teams' performances at the end of the year.
"Rather than it being seen to be player power, we'd be suggesting that the county board still ultimately has the authority to appoint whatever manager they want. But you actually need to set up a system whereby players can have a meaningful input into that process. There needs to be a committee or a group with an independent chairman, agreeable to the county board and players. The county board and players need to have their representatives on that committee, somebody that they trust.
"Now we wouldn't recommend a current player on that group. They come together and vet the candidates for the job and ultimately go through a professional process before making a recommendation to the county board."
Surely most county boards will just tell you to take a run and jump?
"Yeah, but then we shouldn't be surprised when these situations happen if that is the prevailing attitude."
Point I'm making is, is it not setting a very dangerous precedent here? Galway get to an All-Ireland hurling final, are leading it by three points at half-time, and - for whatever reason - decide they want a new manager at the end of the year. Mayo lose an All-Ireland football semi-final to Dublin in a replay! These teams come so close and they get rid of their management teams. Could this not be seen as a loss of realism?
"You're right and people will take different views of it. We're not privy to everything that has gone on in those squads, but the one thing I will say is that players are intelligent people. They don't make these decisions lightly. They're well thought out. Nobody wants to get involved in this type of business for the sake of it. It's not done on a whim.
"There are really solid reasons why a squad would want to go down this road and I think we need to respect that. Players have the right to challenge a situation that they find themselves in and, as they would see it, make it better for themselves. At the same time, we need to understand that there is the other side. There is a different view. And players need to be very respectful of that.
"While both instances were unfortunate and nobody wants to have to go down this road, I think both squads handled themselves very well. It's not a case of players just waking up on a morning and saying, 'To Hell with this . . .'"
No, but it does return us to this term 'player power'. And there's a lot of people in the GAA very fearful of that.
"I definitely understand that. Players play and administrators administrate. And that's right. We don't ask administrators to play. But there needs to be an understanding from both sides of the needs of one another. It's not that players want to be calling the shots or becoming power brokers. But they do want an input and they do believe that they're entitled to have that.
"So it's really important that we put in a system and that's what we've been talking to the GAA about. Just so that counties can do this in the right way so that there is cognisance of the player view in the appointment of the management team but, ultimately, they (county board) are responsible for making that appointment. I think that would prevent these type of situations happening in the future."
Would you honestly be confident that could be put in place in most counties?
"Well having discussed it with the GAA and they separately would have been working on something similar themselves, so it's a case of trying to bring the best elements of those proposals together. It's not that they're poles apart. Far from it.
"I think in 2016 we'll see a situation where the GPA and GAA will be putting forward a type of framework that is best practice for the area of appointing management teams in the future. Because there is too much fallout. The Cork situation, I think, should be a lesson for everyone involved in the game because there's still massive fallout down there from what happened all those years ago.
"And that's not going to go away until all the various principals involved are gone to the four corners. We need to be very careful that we don't end up with those sorts of situations in other counties because there's too much at stake now. Players are committing a number of years of their lives at an important time in terms of the formation of their careers outside of this pastime if you like.
"And similarly for the management teams as well."
One of the charges made against the GPA is that you're fundamentally elitist. Your championship proposals sought a lot more games at county level that would, presumably, impact negatively on a club scene already fairly squeezed as things stand? So is that charge not valid?
"We'd differ from that view. If you analyse our proposals, there were a lot of weekends built in for club activity. While there were more (county) games, the season was definitely more condensed, allowing for a proper club programme. For the vast majority of counties, from the third week of July, they were able to go at their club programme in its entirety because there was no distraction from the county game.
"One of the underlying principles when we brought our group together to put forward a proposal was that, whatever they were doing needed to have a positive impact on the club programme too. And we would argue that ultimately our proposal would do that."
But your proposal would have round robin games where Division 1 teams would play Division 4 teams. What would be the point to those games?
"When you ask the players at that (Division 4) level, they want to be competing against the best teams. They have a view that, if they're not included, they're just going to be cut adrift. And you may as well deal with a more elite competition for the eight or ten teams and let the rest of us swing for it basically.
"I think what we'd try to do would be innovative that, when a Division 4 team would play someone from the higher tier, that would be in their own backyard. The sense of excitement that that might bring locally for some of those counties to be able to pit their wares against the best in the business in front of their own home crowd, thinking even of what that might do for the local economies . . . that was something that gathered a lot of traction quickly in the discussions.
"I think the players involved believe there would be huge merit in it. Similarly for the Dublins and Kerrys, they wouldn't see it as pointless going to play Wicklow in Aughrim or Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon. Championship is different and when you create a different dynamic you don't know what it might trigger."
So were you disappointed GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail (far left) was so categorical in a recent interview on these pages with Martin Breheny that there would be no extra games?
"Yeah because we actually addressed that with the GAA. Look I understand they have over 20 proposals that they're trying to sift through and make sense of. It's complex. Coming up with a solution that meets all the various interests isn't going to be easy. It's going to be a nightmare in many ways.
"We actually asked the GAA could we bring some of the group to a meeting to tease out the proposal so that everyone understands the essence of it. So we were taken aback by those (the president's) comments. Some of the players would actually have contacted us saying, 'Hang on a second, we're actually after investing a lot of time and effort into this . . . '
"It took months to put together. There was a massive consultation process with players and squads outside of the focus group that we set up. And all of a sudden their work seemed to be completely dismissed.
"But we've got assurances that there is actually going to be an internal process within the GAA to look at the various aspects . . ."
So it's not blown out of the water?
"I don't think so. We were coming at this from a number of different perspectives. One is the playing experience.
"Something has to be done with the training-to-playing games ratio. Like, it's ridiculous. The only way to reduce that is actually tighten up the season altogether which isn't going to work in terms of needing to compete with other sports.
"So if you're going to address it properly, it has to be through the inclusion of more meaningful games. Obviously trying to do that without compromising the club programme is a challenge. But we believe it can be done. Players are motivated by their own experience in this. They see that what's going on at the minute isn't working for them and they believe it's not working for the supporters either. People are tuning out. They're only really getting engaged from beyond the quarter-final stage of the (football) championship.
"The provincial system seems to be broken apart from in Ulster. And what we're seeing with Ulster is that their winners are almost a beaten docket at that stage. These competitions were great competitions in their time.
"We'd encourage the GAA to be bold and courageous here. To be innovative and try something new. I'm not saying that ours is the best proposal. There may be some very good proposal submitted from elsewhere."
But what you're calling for is surely such a huge leap of faith that it's hard to see the GAA embracing it? Whatever the training-to-games ratio and however long it takes the championship to come alive, it still comes alive?
"It does. But imagine getting that excitement and sense of anticipation at a much earlier stage of the competition? Think how great that would be. I'd be saying for two years let's go with an experiment of some description. There will still be an All-Ireland winner at the end of it, regardless of what system is put in place. If we don't like it, we can always revert back to what we know.
"Look, it's a big organisation and it does things in a certain way. But I'd have very strong views on the competition structure and how getting that right will have a hugely positive impact on the game for the future.
"So I'd just be encouraging the GAA to be bold on this, to commit to doing something significant and meaningful."
What is the GPA's main long-term aim at this stage?
"Very simply, in one sentence? It's about encouraging our players to be their personal best off the field of play. The game is amateur and we believe in the amateur ethos. But at the same time we believe in the need to put in place supports and programmes to assist players to reach their potential off the field of play.
"And that needs to be embedded into the culture of our games and the Association at the highest level. We're saying that, as part of that culture, player development has to form part of the game. If it's not, we're doing a massive disservice to generations of players who are committing so much to this, then coming out the other end and asking themselves, 'What was all that about?'
"Because it's unnatural for somebody from six, seven years old all they want to be is a county footballer or hurler . . . they fall in love with the game and build themselves up to be the best they can be on the field of play. . . then all of a sudden, on a given Sunday, they throw the gearbag over their shoulder, leave the dressing-room and that's it forever and a day. It's over.
"To expect players all of a sudden to be able to be at peace with that, that everything they've directed their lives towards for the last 25-30 years is just gone in the blink of an eye, it's unnatural.
"We're saying that players need to understand at the earliest possible age that, 'You're more than just an athlete . . . You need to start building your life accordingly'. If they do that, it's not just much better for the players, it's much better for everyone. Because you're having a generation of more successful people in life outside of the games. People who are not just great for what they do on the field, but what they do off it too.
"The impact that could have on the next generation of young people in this country - not just to be great hurlers or footballers, but to go and do amazing things in life outside of that as well . . . We believe there's massive potential within the county playing base to develop that new generation of leaders."
When does your funding from the GAA come up for review next?
"That's up for review at the minute. We're talking to the GAA about that and hopefully, at some point in 2016, we'll have a new three- to five-year deal put in place. One of the challenges is for some of the decision-making bodies within the GAA at Management and Central Council level to truly understand the work we're doing and the impact that that has on players' lives.
"How it has to be viewed as an investment in the future prosperity of our games. We like to claim we've some of the best field sports in the world, wouldn't it be great to have an ambition of having one of the best players' development programmes in the world as well?"
So you still feel you're coming up against a lot of closed minds?
"You do, but it's getting much better. As players come through the programmes and understand the bigger picture, they've become great advocates within the dressing-rooms themselves through word of mouth.
"But they're talking to stakeholders at all levels of the games. The Player Development Programme is only up and running five years now. It's still very much in its infancy, so we're on a journey with that."
You're losing your chairman, Dónal óg Cusack, to the Clare hurling team. Could you put into words his contribution to the GPA?
"It's been immense really. I knew he was going, but the Clare element took me by surprise. He had mentioned something in passing, but I think I dismissed it out of hand. But he had been talking about this being his last year from early in the year. He's an amazing individual, not just with what he's done in his own sports career or for the GPA, but in life outside of that and the impact he's had on many, many others.
"He'll be a loss because he was an unbelievable resource to us. They're big shoes to fill, but Seamus (Hickey) is so passionate about it too and so highly respected amongst players . . . he managed the Fenway Project for us. This was before he even knew he was in the running to be chairman.
"And how the people of Fenway speak about him as an individual, how professional he was, it spoke volumes of the type of individual that he is. So it's a natural fit. He's been on our Executive Board for the last number of years as well, so he'll be great. He'll bring something new and different and that's exciting for us.
"Also he's a current player and it's important to have that balance at board level. So for us it's great to have Seamus and to have Paul Flynn as secretary. Two current players, highly-regarded individuals who'll offer a lot to us."
Last question. When you think back to all the work you put into the early days of the GPA, are you still enjoying it?
"I do and I feel very privileged to be able to work in the game that I grew up loving all my life. It's been an amazing journey to think where we've got to coming from where we were coming from. From nothing essentially."