Tough call between the individual and the community
In pursuing his transfer request, Sean Johnston is asking the GAA a fundamental question.
It is this: why should my place of birth determine my fate in my chosen sport?
He might argue that the issue is simpler than that: the manager of the Cavan county team doesn't want him so he would like to make a fresh start with Kildare.
But there is widespread disquiet because it is seen as a transparent case of somebody leaving a weak team for one of the strongest teams in the country. He has no apparent ties with Kildare but he moved to Straffan from Cavan town last winter. His job as a teacher is still in Cavan town. Where once his commute was probably ten minutes, now it's more like an hour and a half. Johnston has used no fig leaf to disguise his ambition.
He has taken up residence in Kildare for no other reason than to play with its flagship team.
In doing so he is challenging an ideal that has become sacrosanct over the last 125 years. It is enshrined in the GAA's constitution and rules -- its Official Guide. "As the Gaelic Athletic Association is community-centred, based on the allegiance of its members to their local clubs and counties, the transfer and declaration rules in this Official Guide and in county bye-laws reflect that ethos. A player is considered to owe allegiance and loyalty to his home club and county, as defined in these rules."
It is not just an ideal or an ethos but a living tradition. It speaks volumes for the power of that tradition that so few players have challenged it in the past. One of the reasons is that it works, and works gloriously. It appeals directly to a person's sense of place. It cherishes their roots, connects them with community, protects their sense of belonging. As a social unifier it is a powerful force for good.
The terms and conditions are handed down from generation to generation. You follow your home team basically from cradle to grave. You'll have your days in the sun, you'll have many more days in the rain. That's the deal, and always has been. And supporters have accepted it with a level of consensus that is remarkable, given how unfair this arrangement essentially is.
The county system means that the distribution of playing numbers is ridiculously unequal. And yet counties with small populations cannot import players from other well-stocked counties because it violates the aforementioned ethos. Supporters are condemned to a cycle of failure that becomes oppressive. It can last decades without any real joy to cling onto.
The same applies to the players except that it's worse for them because they invest so much more of their lives in the system. The GAA's ethos, for all its virtues, punishes players, not for the want of talent but because of where they happen to be born. Gaelic football and hurling are the only sports where the cream does not necessarily rise to the top. They are the only sports where a pure meritocracy does not apply.
Great players born in weak counties will never have a chance of winning the top honours in their game. Their potential is frequently wasted. They are condemned by an accident of birth to repeated failure. Many of their careers end prematurely, in frustration and disillusion. These players would be transformed by a fresh start in another county. But they can't move, they are trapped.
Typically they will enjoy a few good days out at some stage, maybe a promotion from Division 4, or a shock championship win that gets the pulses racing in the county for a couple of weeks. Within a season or two the optimism peters out and they return to the drudgery of January training with no hope in sight.
This sacred ethos is also therefore a rigid ideology which has trapped legions of loyal supporters and good players over the decades. It is shrouded in a wholesome folklore that has accumulated over a century and more. A sort of benign propaganda that is only reinforced by those occasional fairytales, when a minnow team manages to do something historic.
In reality, it perpetuates stagnation in far too many counties. The prohibition on player movement means most teams can only
go so far. There are numerous examples of dedicated sides who were only one or two players
short of a major breakthrough. They would return season after season, striving desperately to reach their goal, only to find that ultimately they were going round in circles. They had to make do with what they had, and it wasn't enough.
The GAA has a powerful, maybe invincible, argument that the protection of the status quo is vital for the common good. The consequences of free player movement could be profoundly damaging, for clubs in particular. But there's a possibility that it could work the other way too.
Sean Johnston's stance is a clash between an individual's right to fulfil his potential on the one hand, and what is believed to be the common good on the other. This is the age, for better or worse, of individual liberty, personal development, freedom of choice. The GAA remains a bulwark of social cohesion and community togetherness.
Johnston has become a test case. The final decision has yet to be made. It is a tough call, one way or the other.
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