The senior inter-county game has not only been sucking the life out of the GAA, killing the clubs, it has been sucking the life out of those who play it.
I gave a lecture on sport and ethics in Trinity College last Saturday and I have to say it was a lot of fun. At one point during the talk I was about to embark on an anecdote that couldn't be told publicly. "Anyone here from the press?" After some nervous laughter, a lady put up her hand. "You breathe a word of what I'm about to say and I'll come after you with everything I have." (audience laughter). "I know a lot more sinister people than you do young lady (more laughter). So do not f*** with me." (explosion of laughter.) Afterwards, she came up to me and said: "I'm from the Irish Catholic newspaper."
In the Q&A section following the lecture, Karol Mannion, ex-Roscommon footballer and All-Ireland club winner with St Brigid's, said he got out of the county game because it was taking the players' lives from them. When he began with Roscommon they were a vibrant, imaginative team playing free-flowing football in Division One of the National League. As he put it, "it was part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle."
Many of them drank after league games together. They got full now and again and were able to meet and socialise in their locality. Some even, on one famous occasion, got naked in a hotel in Derry after a challenge match, walking casually through the place in the nip. A bemused hotel manager went to the games room to be greeted by the sight of two playing members (for want of a better word) calmly playing snooker, stark naked.
Nowadays, players are punished by managers for so much as being seen in a bar. Earlier this year, two Clare hurlers stepped down from the panel claiming they were disciplined after being in a pub mid-week, apparently drinking spring water, before a weekend game they were not even slated to take part in. It is typical of an enormous, dysfunctional transformation in our culture, created by out-of-control managers, permitted by docile county boards and a GAA elite that is working hand in glove with an entirely professional GPA. Players are being turned into dependent clones.
As the fixation on winning has taken hold, elitism has replaced participation and a once healthy ethos has been corrupted. With elitism, the focus moves to a tiny minority. In turn, a vast, unhealthy pressure has been exerted on that minority. So, county players are now cordoned off from normal life. You never see them out and about, unless they are en route to training or a match. Their lives have become entirely micro-managed.
I was shown a mid-year weekly diary of an Ulster county squad last year by one of the backroom team. Each week, the players were given a timetable containing minute detail. One segment read as follows: "Tuesday morning: Out of bed by 8.0am. Eat breakfast at home" - before prescribing exactly what that breakfast should be. Eat breakfast at home? Is it any wonder county players are becoming colourless clones?
I remember once at the Slieve Russell when we were in our pomp, a waitress asked the great Tony Scullion if he wanted the continental breakfast and himself and Big Brian McGilligan roared with laughter. Within minutes, vast Ulster fries were sitting in front of the boys. In those days, neither Dungiven nor Straw were particularly influenced by eating habits on the European continent.
The point is that this ultra-monastic lifestyle is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive. Too much pressure. Too much boredom. Too damaging an impact on the healthy development of our young men.
Before the Rugby World Cup final a fortnight ago, Aussie manager Michael Cheika described his team as "a mixture of lovers and fighters". After every game, they socialise together. In pro rugby, a balanced lifestyle is considered essential. Cheika's number eight, David Pocock, reckoned by experts to be the best in his position in the world, chimed in. He is co-founder of 20/20 vision, a rural development programme in poverty-stricken Zimbabwe. "At the end of the day," he said, "Michael is right. It's a game. It's there to be enjoyed. It can offer so much to us, but there is a lot more to life than chasing a rugby ball around the place."
Pocock's training load is under eight hours per week (according to Mike McGurn, high performance at QUB, ex-coach of the All Blacks and Ireland, all senior inter-county teams significantly exceed this). Pocock spends much of his free time on his farm in Canberra with his partner, Emma, where they have nine chickens, and their garden provides their fruit and veg. He has a very full life outside of rugby. He is currently studying Ecological Agricultural Systems, his passion. He is also heavily involved with the Climate Change Movement. Recently, he was arrested by police when he chained himself to a monster digger to prevent the desecration of an ecologically important site. Imagine one of our senior inter-county players doing that? No chance. Our boys have to stay out of sight (save for endorsing products) and stay silent. Save for when they are put before the cameras to give one of those excruciating interviews. The ones where they talk without talking.
Marty Morrissey: You've got Leitrim in the qualifiers today. It will be little more than a run out for you?
Random Player: Well, Marty, Leitrim are a great team and we've got the greatest respect for them.
MM: But they lost to Mayo by 34 points in Connacht.
RP: Well, Marty, we watched the video of that and they certainly didn't do themselves justice. Seven of those goals came from uncharacteristic mistakes and 14 of the frees they conceded were unfortunate. They are a great team and I've no doubt they will have learned from those errors. We're under no illusions that this is a huge challenge for us today.
MM: But seven of their first team, including their left-footed free taker, right-footed free taker, goalie, midfielders, full-back and centre-forward have gone to America since the Mayo game. We're hearing that the bus driver has had to tog out today.
RP: Well, that is right, Marty. But the under-21s and three minors they've brought in are all quality players and the bus driver is extremely experienced. We know that if we're not at the top of our game, we'll not come through this challenge - so we are under no illusions that this is a huge challenge today.
MM: And, of course, the game is in Croke Park, where this Leitrim team have never played.
RP: Well, Marty, the fact it is Croke Park puts all the pressure on us. Leitrim are a great team and they haven't come here to make up the numbers, so it's a huge challenge for our players and we're under no illusions that this is a huge challenge today.
Like life-size marionettes, where a string is pulled out from their back and they repeat several stock phrases. Outside of the game, players have been reduced to advertising hoardings. "The new Audi is amazing", or "Thanks adidas for the incredible new Predator boots made from alligator hide." It is as tacky as the child in the beauty pageant.
As inter-county Gaelic football has been twisted from something healthy and good into a conformist freak show, the GPA has thrived. This is unsurprising, since many of them are little more than tacky billboards. The shocking events in Clare hurling last season gave them the opportunity to take a stand on behalf of players. Instead, they did nothing. Within the year, their chairman Donal Óg Cusack (most recent tweet: "Thanks for the park and fill @QparkIreland @Mitsubishi_IRL @DanSeamanMotors @Drive4Zero") has become the all-smiling, all-dancing sidekick of Davy Fitzgerald. You couldn't make it up.
Players need their lives back. Have a drink in moderation. Sometimes not in moderation at all. Go to the pictures. Socialise with friends. Train less. Live more. Buy some chickens for f*** sake. Say real things. Chain themselves to railings somewhere for a good cause. Streak down the main street on a Sunday night. Anything to lift the gloom imposed by the nasty, money-grabbing little cartel that has come to dominate the county game.
GPA President Dessie Farrell was a picture of indifference when asked his thoughts on the papers published by the GAA suggesting resolutions to the issues of player burnout and fixture saturation, and retains little optimism that a favourable reconciliation will ever be reached.