Sunday 18 February 2018

John Greene: Gagging orders unfair on players and public

By not trusting its stars to have their say, GAA managers are handing initiative to other sports

Speaking to the press prior to the 2010 All-Ireland final didn’t hamper man-of-the-match Lar Corbett. Photo: Sportsfile
Speaking to the press prior to the 2010 All-Ireland final didn’t hamper man-of-the-match Lar Corbett. Photo: Sportsfile
John Greene

John Greene

In late August 2010, Lar Corbett sat into a car with photographer Gerry Mooney and headed up the Dublin road out of Thurles to some local landmarks. He spent an hour striking various poses, chatting amiably while Mooney did his thing, showing all the patience you might expect of an arch-poacher.

Corbett had already given time to several journalists working for Sunday newspapers, including the Sunday Independent, and if he was feeling any anxiety or doubt in the build-up to an All-Ireland hurling final clash with a Kilkenny side chasing an historic five-in-a-row then he was keeping it well hidden.

Tipperary had been beaten in the previous year's final by their arch rivals. The players and manager Liam Sheedy had been under huge pressure all summer after crashing out of the Munster Championship to Cork in the opening game and although they had slowly rebuilt through the qualifiers, Kilkenny were red-hot favourites to make hurling history.

Yet, despite all this, Corbett had given up significant time to the media ahead of the game, and on the morning of the final the Sunday Independent devoted a full page to him, including a striking picture, under the headline, 'It's what you gave your whole life to'. One passage stood out: "We're going up today knowing the work is done and we'll play what's in front of us. There's not an ounce of pressure there."

Of course there was pressure on Corbett and his team-mates. In fact, at the time, Tipperary were under serious pressure to upset the odds. I have often wondered since how many people looked at the newspapers that morning and shook their heads in disapproval, thinking Lar should have shied away from the spotlight; and I have wondered how many people read what he had to say and said, 'Fair play to you, Lar'.

Tipperary won, Corbett scored a brilliant hat-trick, was named man of the match and went down in history while the rest of us moved on. Fair play to you, Lar. In reality, Corbett cut loose on All-Ireland final day because he was ready, mentally and physically, to do so. Tipperary won because they were the better team on the day and what appeared in this paper, or in any other paper in the days leading up the game, had absolutely nothing to do with.

Today, Tipperary play Offaly and Kilkenny play Wexford in the quarter-finals of the Allianz Hurling Leagues. They may be important games but they are a long, long way off an All-Ireland final - it's still only the first Sunday in April and there's a lot of hurling to be done yet in 2017. But there is a huge appetite among supporters, and plenty of interest in these games - when Tipp and Kilkenny met in the league three weeks ago there were almost 15,000 people in Semple Stadium.

Last Wednesday, journalists were invited to the launch of a new product and two of the most exciting hurlers in the country were present to help promote it. Brendan O'Brien of The Examiner later tweeted: "Rugby and soccer all over the media but two top hurlers, Seamus Callanan and Richie Hogan, not allowed speak at a commercial gig today."

You see, it's a simple formula: a company looking for publicity will use sports stars to attract the media; journalists get to speak with these stars and report their comments to readers or listeners who are interested in what they have to say - and everybody's happy.

But more and more, the stars of the piece are being gagged, prevented from speaking for fear they will say something that someone, somewhere with nothing better to do will somehow manage to take offence from. Or, worse still, because their views on the Super 8 will somehow derail their team's championship plans. It doesn't matter that many of these players are intelligent, articulate young men capable of independent thought, and meaningful relevant observations on the world around them and - God forbid - occasional outbursts of humour.

A colleague tells a story about one such launch where a well-known player who has attained notable academic achievements looked at journalists apologetically and said: "I'm sorry, I'm not allowed talk." An extremely intelligent man was made to look, and feel, anything but - which is truly shameful.

Players generally receive a financial reward - or some other type of reward - for lending their time to companies looking to generate publicity because it is they who attract the media and, by extension, public interest through their sporting exploits. But if this trend of management teams gagging players continues then the media and the public will lose interest and move on to something else.

In fact, the media should now consider moving on rather than continuing to collaborate with this situation. And the gap that's left will be filled with coverage of people and stories from other areas of Irish life, sporting and otherwise. The world will keep turning.

And that would be a shame, for everyone, but especially the players because it is Gaelic footballers and hurlers who seem most exposed to this nonsense. The irony, of course, is that they are amateurs and we should not begrudge them any opportunity to capitalise on their status while well-paid professional soccer and rugby players are treated as adults and trusted to speak.

What greater asset has the GAA than its players to help promote its games in competition with rugby and soccer and the other sports? This is yet another manifestation of how far out of control the inter-county scene is right now, and especially the amount of power being wielded by managers and their backroom teams.

It is an issue for the GAA because it hands the initiative to other sports which have a more enlightened approach to nurturing the image of its top stars. And it removes yet another layer of connection between the players and the supporters.

Fair play to you, Lar, indeed.

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