Ewan MacKenna: Why the GAA needs Joe Brolly at the helm as the new Director-General
If there's a moment that will matter most to Irish sport across 2018, we already know it to be this.
Come March, the GAA will anoint it's next director-general and, while not immediately luring in its sexiness, consider the consequences. Firstly, no sporting organisation is more important to daily life across the island as it taps into a national culture and mindset in a way no other can. Secondly, given the direction it's taken this century, this isn't so much a crossroads as the last chance to turn away from being corporate-driven and return to being primarily community-based.
Get this wrong and there's no way back. It will become one more institution, just another cog in the giant and grinding wheel.
That in mind, a suggestion for the job recently sprang to mind. Joe Brolly. Stay with us as we expected that reaction.
Recently I told him he is one of the most condescending people I've debated with, adding that he doesn't have a patent on morality when it comes to talking up his beliefs and acts and talking down those of others.
I could have said worse and many have, however the problem with the common take on Brolly is we struggle to see past his latest jibe that happens to jar us, be it Mayo as celebrity losers, Seán Cavanagh's virtues as a man, the way defences dare to defend nowadays, his new-found Dublin love-in or Colm Cooper's cash-in.
All of that is part of his media gig, shining a light on elements he believes in, but step too close to the screen and you miss the big picture.
That's our loss when it comes to a man whose deeds often outflank his words, a man who gets that lost sense of place and purpose within the GAA, a man that usually stands up for the underdog in an era when they've never been trampled on more cruelly.
Across December, a couple of his articles didn't get the usual reaction. They weren't divisive. But they were hugely important and summed up his spirit, the same one the association desperately needs to tap into.
Initially he bemoaned where the GAA now finds itself as a result of its deliberate decisions, as it became a monetised product that had and has little time for the sort of socialism that made it so valuable and that helps it survive and thrive. Taking that theory further, after a night on the streets to draw some semblance of attention to homelessness (run by a hugely admirable group of former players under the name Gaelic Voices for Change), Brolly pointed out how homes have become houses, a byword for commodities to be speculated on and profited from by the few.
If one issue is far more brutal and infuriating than the other, then there is still a key link. This is the modern way, where personal gain triumphs over the greater good, where helping others is a rare feat and not a reflex, where a person is measured by money and not morals.
Sport usually mirrors life, but in a world where the struggles of the many are talked down to by chatter about GDP and profit margins and multinationals and booms, the GAA has to smash that mirror. Instead, it has spent much time admiring itself in the looking glass. As Brolly himself put it, “The GAA is wasting its power. We have huge financial, social and political clout. We do not wield any of it”.
Indeed rather than attempt to have a positive outward effect, this new version of the association can't even manage that internally around the small sphere of sport.
Instead we have Sky deals, GPA handouts, club peasantry, rural isolation and fixture chaos, with almost all of it down to a gearing towards those best off.
It's been a steady and stable mimicking of our real-world politics where - as one example of elitism – we have Leo Varadker try and normalise homelessness by telling us it's not that bad by international standards, as his henchman Damien English pushes the idea that a media highlighting it damages our global reputation.
What we are left with is a three-tier system via the Chinafication of the GAA. Overall strength is built on the suffering many; on the surface it's run by career politicians; they're told what to do from the true top. State-capitalism might work for those in a position to tell you it works, but not for most others. Of course money matters and the association has to fund any work while battling off other sports, however, what also matters is how you make it and how you spend it as, otherwise, what's the point beyond greed and excess?
Change is hugely needed and not only in the name of the director-general but in their outlook and actions. Thus Brolly in many ways represents that new and positive way the association needs to embrace. This is a time to again credit the GAA volunteer in reality and not just rhetoric, and to put the majority first. It's a time to put pressure on and influence a society rotting before us and all for the benefit of a spoiled minority. Is that not a massive opportunity?
Brolly may not want the role of director-general but introducing his name and notions isn't just a wasted hypothetical.
Sadly, he'd never get a chance, nor would anyone like him, and that shows up the direction those running the GAA have already decided upon with Lincoln Recruitment Specialists 'exclusively retained' for the purposes of finding Páraic Duffy's replacement.
This is a company whose sales pitch reads: “When talent shines, business grows” and whose website is crammed with buzzwords the association should have run from.
Still, via the job advertisement, potential candidates have already been narrowed down and hacked away at. That's because the requirements include a 'third level business-related qualification (min Level 8 NFQ)', 'established leadership and influencing skills', 'experience of policy development and strategic planning', and 'proven ability to effectively manage multiple projects and priorities'.
While not suggesting a degree of business ability isn't important if not absolutely vital, as Professor Paul Rouse pointed out in his Irish Examiner column recently, “Looking for a formal ‘business-related qualification’ is something different. It places a premium on formal training in a particular area. Why is this the case? Why does the director-general of the GAA require formal training in business and not in, say, management systems or communications or project organisation?” That's wholly rhetorical.
What it leaves are potential candidates to continue taking the association away from where and what it needs to be.
Names thrown up now include Peter McKenna and Fergal McGill (men on the inside as profits became priority), Dublin CEO John Costello (a man who perhaps more than anyone benefited from the GAA's elitism) and Liam Sheedy (who is undoubtedly a fine GAA person, but whose business expertise came via Bank of Ireland as their attitude and arrogance helped reduce much of the country to rubble).
None of them see the GAA now, or in the future, like Brolly and many others in the grassroots do, and that's a great shame. “The GAA is not a product, it's a way of life,” the Derry native penned recently. Perhaps, but not for long, as such thinking is bad for business.