Tuesday 24 October 2017

GAA slides in direction it does not want to take

The payments to managers saga echoes a similar dilemma in American sport, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

Late last year Taylor Branch, an acclaimed civil rights historian, caused a minor stir in America by publishing an article under the stark headline 'The Shame of College Sports'.

The shame Branch referred to was the barely concealed reality of improper payments to student athletes, an inevitable consequence of a culture in which the athletes helped generate huge profits but were denied a fair share in the name of an amateur ethos that had long since lost all meaning.

On the surface it was odd that Branch's polemic should have raised so many hackles. The issue of pay-for-play in American college sport has been an emotive one for many years. Reports have been sanctioned on it. Commissions have investigated it. The view that athletes should be paid either because they are worth it or because it would stem the flow of under-the-counter payments was widely touted long before Branch made his telling contribution.

Yet the forensic nature of his analysis, allied to his impressive civil rights record, meant Branch's argument gained huge traction in mainstream America. Journalists and bloggers rushed to hail his conclusions as a "watershed" moment in the history of college sport. It was as if he had presented a slam-dunk case against the NCAA, the stewards of college sport, and hammered a final nail in the coffin of its ongoing struggle to maintain its amateur ethos.

To say college sport is big business is a bit like admitting the GAA has a minor issue with violence. In 2010, the Southeastern Conference became the first to break through the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. This year the Big Ten will likely follow. Then there are the billion-dollar contracts the NCAA signs with the television networks, the millions splashed out on celebrity coaches, the huge revenue generated by the big universities like Penn State, Georgia and Notre Dame.

It's easy to view these figures and conclude that the argument against paying players is one of principle rather than affordability. But it's not quite as black and white as that. Taking exception to Branch's findings, Seth Davis argued in Sports Illustrated that not only were athletes already being paid -- up to $45,000 a year in scholarship fees -- but it was disingenuous to argue for pay-for-play without first establishing the basis on which it could be introduced.

To support his argument, Davis produced a few compelling statistics of his own. Of the 332 schools competing in the NCAA's Division One, less than a dozen ran profitable athletic departments. Of the 120 programmes that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 operated in the black and these colleges had also to support other sporting programmes that generated little or no revenue. Where would the money to pay athletes come from?

Inevitably, much of the objection to paying players is underpinned by a primitive fear that, once you lift the lid, there's no telling where it might lead: "the first small steps down a long and slippery slope," as Davis says. And he scorns the notion too that legitimising some form of payment to players will automatically purge college sport of the scourge of agents and backhanders. "This insults our intelligence," he says.

Looking on from this side of the Atlantic, there's an unmistakeable familiarity to the issues being discussed here. Forget the huge sums involved for a moment and there's little fundamental difference in the war being fought out on college campuses in America and the issues facing the GAA here. They're talking about players, we're still discussing managers. Almost the exact same questions, though. And the same set of thorny dilemmas.

In a sense that's not surprising. It's hard to identify many major sporting organisations that are not just amateur by nature, but embrace that amateurism as a vital statement about its identity. The AFL once cherished its amateur status, too, but lost the will to fight for it over a century ago when a bribery scandal exposed the depth of illegal payments and the lid could be kept shut no longer.

The NCAA, like the GAA, has tirelessly fought to keep the lid firmly shut. In 1956, a couple of years after the GAA banned collective training, Walter Byers, the NCAA's first president, introduced the scholarship system in the vain hope of stemming the flow of illicit payments. To Byers, scholarships were a contravention of the amateur code, but they represented the lesser of two evils, much the same way hardened realists here viewed government-approved grants to GAA players.

Back then few in America could have foreseen the huge consequences of what seemed such a modest concession. The scholarships, at first a solid guarantee of a good education, gradually segued into what became little more than quasi contracts of employment, the threat of dismissal hanging over a student if his athletic prowess came up short, if he turned out to be a "recruitment mistake".

And so over the years college sport, while enthralling the nation, evolved into something that would have horrified its founding fathers, in a way few could have envisaged and hastened by a governing body which, through its ham-fisted efforts to maintain the illusion of amateurism, only succeeded in making things worse.

"In past decades the NCAA substituted a counterfeit version of amateurism for the real thing," wrote Allen Sack, a former Notre Dame footballer and New Haven professor, in 2008. "It happened so slowly that most people did not notice."

That's how professionalism operates. It doesn't come storming in like a big bad wolf threatening to blow the house down. It creeps up by stealth until, as Sack testifies, you wake up one morning and realise the game you loved has changed beyond all recognition. Think of those rugby union officials entering that fateful meeting room in Paris in 1995, not for a moment believing the game's amateur status was under threat, then leaving the same room a few hours later, staggering around like drunks, realising the game was long since up.

The popular refrain is that the GAA can never go down this road. Not enough money to kick-start it. Not enough revenue to sustain it. And this is probably true. At least in its present guise anyway. All the things about it that would perplex an outsider -- a championship in which only a select few are competitive, a secondary competition devalued by widespread indifference, a casual approach to marketing -- are precisely why it might remain resistant to the relentless march of progress for some time to come.

Yet you can't simply say never. Almost every major story that breaks in GAA-land these days bears an underlying current of what might lie ahead in a distant future. Last week Seán Cavanagh eloquently articulated his distaste for the enormous demands being placed on today's generation of players, but then you imagine Seanie Johnston, for one, would be quite happy to have Cavanagh's problems and, perhaps, an All-Ireland medal or two in his back pocket.

Some wondered why Johnston, apparently unwanted by Cavan, would have any business declaring for Kildare, but that's beside the point. Far from wilfully undermining the traditions of the game, what Johnston has done is simply look at his situation from the perspective of an ambitious athlete, asking why his career at the top level should have to be finished at the age of 27. We

mightn't like what he is doing, but can we quibble with that impulse?

In isolation, stories like these don't seem to drip with significance. Over the years, though, they add up, ever so subtly altering the landscape, conditioning minds to the reality that the old traditions may not be as sacrosanct as was thought. Those who strenuously opposed the GPA grants understood this better than most.

Unhelpfully portrayed in several quarters as a backward looking rump, they were actually more visionary than most, glimpsing a future that didn't encourage them, the "slippery slope" that Davis talked about.

No doubt they would see much to alarm them in the college debate rippling through the US right now. What troubles those like Davis who oppose pay-for-play isn't just the abandonment of a cherished amateur ethos, but a genuine fear that the real headaches only begin once you sanction it. How does it work? Do you allow a free market and stand aside as a hungry pack of spivs and agents move in for the turkey-shoot? Or do you keep it tightly regulated and then pretend you have all the bases covered, insulting our intelligence in the process?

The issues facing the GAA aren't quite so dramatic, but big decisions will have to be made nonetheless. In its discussion document, the clear suggestion is that if payments to managers are to be sanctioned, then it will be conducted through a tightly controlled framework. And that's fair enough, of course, except that two big questions immediately raise their heads.

The first is that, in a tightly-regulated environment, suspicions of illegal payments will be slow to disappear and, more fundamentally, in at least laying the foundations for a professional management caste, ultimately they are inching the association a little further down a road it has never wanted to travel.

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