Wednesday 18 September 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: 'Players are better looked after but are under microscope more than ever before'

Limerick hurler Peter Casey. Photo: Sportsfile
Limerick hurler Peter Casey. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

It is at once the best of times and the worst of times. On the face of it, there has never been a better time to be an inter-county player.

Through an arrangement with the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), the stars of today are better looked after than ever.

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With a nutrition allowance, an increased mileage rate, a variety of scholarship schemes and a raft of off-field development programmes funded through the GPA, players have never been so well supported.

Today's GAA players are also in receipt of State money through the government grants scheme.

It's a not insignificant amount. Payments for 2018, which were distributed early this year, ranged from €970 to €2,227, depending on your county's progress.

That amount has grown significantly over the past few seasons under a deal struck with the government and it's expected those figures will increase in the coming years too.

Throw in the fact that sponsored cars and endorsement deals are commonplace for players with the highest profiles, or with the bigger teams, and the advantages of being a county player seem numerous.

However, there has also never been a more difficult time to be a GAA star with a big profile.

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The explosion of media outlets and the advent of self-publishing through social media means players are more recognisable.

Everyone carries what amounts to a CCTV camera in their pocket.

Every action is recorded and examined and if it doesn't look good, the world will know within a few minutes.

The local hero isn't just local anymore.

And that's why the rumours that whirled around social media this week count as a shot across the bows for the inter-county playing population.

GAA players have bigger profiles that they can use to their benefit. But it can also work against them.

Even out of season, their time is not their own.

Anonymity for many young players doesn't exist anymore and you could say the same about privacy.

Young men socialising, in their own time and out of season, has become open to public scrutiny.

It's new ground for GAA players and that was best demonstrated this week when Limerick hurler Peter Casey was forced to take some unprecedented steps.

After suggestive footage spread like wildfire across the country and social media performed the role of judge, jury and executioner, he undertook a drug test to clear his name.

Casey subsequently released the clear result of that test and asked for it to be disseminated.

It was a reminder that, increasingly, amateur GAA players are amateur in name only.

Some of the scrutiny on their lives away from the game has come as a result of schemes like the government grants.

And through the GAA/GPA anti-doping agreement with Sport Ireland, they are learning that even free money isn't free.

Last year, Sport Ireland insisted that as county players were in receipt of State money, they would come under the same terms and conditions as other athletes.

That meant the GAA would have to provide home addresses for players.

The GPA resisted at first, but when it was made clear that the grants would be withheld until the players complied, the players' body quickly fell in line.

Essentially, it meant that an anti-doping unit could knock on their door and ask for a sample when they saw fit.

At the time, Sport Ireland pointed out that it already reserved the right to test GAA players at home but, consistent with other team sports, did not intend to make home visits the main method of testing.

The acquisition of home addresses was for "intelligence" reasons and to bring county players in line with other codes.

That development came on the back of a change in regulations that meant players could now be asked to provide blood and urine samples.

So, as players have become better looked after, their amateur status has been eroded and so has the protection that status could once provide.

Private lives are no longer particularly private.

A positive test or footage that casts a player in a bad light can have devastating consequences for their life outside his or her chosen sport.

So while players have never been treated better, they've never been under the microscope more.

And after the week that was, no one can say they haven't been warned.

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