'It's gone off the charts' - GPA chief Dermot Earley on the level of supplement use in the GAA
Dermot Earley took three years' leave of absence from the Army to become new CEO of the Gaelic Players' Association in February. Last week the GPA launched its new strategic plan. Vincent Hogan caught up with the former Kildare footballer to get his views on a wide range of issues facing the players' body
VINCENT HOGAN: You've said you don't believe there's a drug problem in the GAA but, given the remarkable variety of supplements that Brendan O'Sullivan was revealed to have been taking, is the supplement culture not a concern you?
DERMOT EARLEY: "Look, I would have taken the whey protein after gym sessions myself, maybe your cod liver oil too. I might have been taking things for my joints. But certainly I was a bit surprised. The levels are so high now, which makes it more important for us to be there to provide the services, certainly on the welfare side, which is where the anti-doping education comes in. And I just do not think we can get enough of that.
"It's the GAA's responsibility to provide the education, but I think we can both increase our efforts to make sure that nobody puts something into their body that's not cleared by their team doctor. County boards are checking everything. They're batch-testing. And that's the fear, that something is contaminated. They're taking extreme measures to make sure that whatever they give to county players is correct."
VH: But take the contamination argument out of it - is the idea of someone feeling compelled to take that quantity and variety of supplements not evidence that the intensity of inter-county involvement is now close to breaking point?
DE: "It is, it's gone off the charts. It's gone on again in the five years since I played county, and chances are it'll go on again in the next five years."
VH: So how do you stop that?
DE: "Well, maybe, through competition structure. We don't have an off-season for our players at all. They'll train with their counties in November. Some county managers will even get them together before that.
"Just because they're not on the pitch doesn't mean they're not training. I'd love to see an off-season where players can actually have a break till after Christmas and not go training until January 1. Then have a six-week pre-season before going into whatever competition.
"The season is too long and managers are all trying to win. And when you're in that place, it takes a brave man to say 'Hold on here a minute, at this stage maybe less is more!'"
VH: Unless they all do it?
DE: "Exactly. But I'd say Dublin footballers train the least amount of any county team because I think Jim Gavin recognises that they need a break."
VH: You mean structured group training, I presume?
DE: "Well I think what's an issue is the collective sessions for five or six days a week, which mean you're always gone at a certain time. A lot of people can do their gym sessions in the morning or lunchtime, but they can do it in their own time.
"And I think that's a Dublin mentality. Two or three players might get together at a time that suits them, then they have the evening free. I know some managers prefer everything to be a collective session, but it would help if we could reduce them in number. So there is room to make sure the game doesn't get to breaking point."
VH: But managers will do whatever they feel they have to do?
DE: "Absolutely, and I suppose if rules are brought in by the Association, it's about policing them and ensuring there are sanctions. Because I don't think that happens, certainly when we talk about pre-season. Why make the rules if you're not going to follow them? Maybe there's just an overall culture that needs to be addressed.
"We'd like greater dialogue with managers, but then I suppose it goes back to the pressure that they're under themselves to perform."
VH: The GPA came in for criticism for not being heard during the week of the Brendan O'Sullivan story. Why were you so silent?
DE: "There are protocols in place. When a player tests positive, he is contacted and that's when the GPA's services are offered to the player. In this particular instance, the player did not want our services. He was happy to go with his own county board. And that's fine. We respect that. But that's why we didn't get involved in the issue, out of respect for the player. If he didn't want us involved, we felt it would be disrespectful to be sticking our noses in.
"If a player looks for our assistance, which was the case with young (Thomas) Connolly in Monaghan, then we will provide it. But there are other ways we can address this issue, like through looking at the protocols. And we will be doing that with the GAA. But, ultimately, when a person puts something into their body, it's their responsibility. That message has to go out loud and clear. We just have to make sure that the players are constantly educated on that until they're sick of hearing from us."
VH: Why did it take you so long (two days before Congress) to publicly reveal that 70pc of your members were against the new Super 8 plan for football?
DE: "Well I'm not using this as an excuse, but there was a changeover. I started on February 6. It obviously took a while to get the players' response and I think, probably, there was a gap there where Dessie (Farrell) had gone and I hadn't fully taken over.
"Maybe it was a lesson for me that this stuff doesn't come back to you immediately, which I might have thought. And we had to get our National Executive together too, which prolonged it by another couple of days. We only met a week before Congress.
"So it was a learning process for me and that's why I was quick to come out last week and point out that we'd just got the hurling proposals, which gave us only 11 days. I didn't think that was fair. What's the rush? But a lesson learned for me."
VH: You described Super 8 as 'a slap in the face' for your members?
DE: "Well again you're kind of caught up in the emotion of that. It was put to me as a question 'Is this a slap in the face?' I probably said yes. And in a way it is. Because the voice of our players, the one cohort that it affects the most, isn't listened to. But that's Congress, that's the GAA, it's the mechanism that we have. We respect that."
VH: But isn't there a history there, given the GPA's Championship proposals in 2015 never even got to the point of discussion?
DE: "That's true. And the funny thing is, it never got a sounding board because it had extra games. The GAA's new proposals have extra games. I know their argument is that ours had 20 and theirs has only 12. You can shape it whatever way you want."
VH: But are you not too close to the GAA to kick up any stink because of the extent to which they finance you?
DE: "This is important. We're financed by our own players. They generate the money. I do think that, historically, there's still a slight rejection of the GPA and why we were formed and maybe the militant stance that they took initially. If we can just get the message out about what we do, what we provide, I think there'll be a greater understanding of us, maybe even appreciation of the work we do. The opposition isn't because of what we do, it's because of who we are."
VH: But are ye not too close to the GAA?
DE: "Well last year's negotiations, which were over a protracted period, broke down a couple of times. That would suggest we're not that close. If the best possible deal wasn't coming for our players, we would look at other action. To say that we're close just because we're funded (by them) would be innacurate."
VH: But do you understand why that perception is there when you receive €7m annually from the GAA? The model for player-representative bodies in other sports would tend to be much more adversarial?
DE: "True, I can understand that. But we can't just down tools every time a decision goes against us. If we are going to have a nuclear reaction to something, we'd better have a good reason. That's always there, but you don't put it on the table every time. I think negotiation is the best way to go, but we have that option, always."
VH: You haven't come up with any new Championship proposals since 2015 - has your experience back then discouraged you from trying again?
DE: "No it hasn't. But I know the amount of work that went into the 2015 plan and obviously the provincial structures are holding up the options of finding a Championship structure that everyone, including the club player, is happy with. But, remember, a club player can go on holiday in June if he wants to because he's not playing Championship until August. The county player usually can't go from January until November. Everybody has their own say, their own patch. I want to get this right because, at the moment, it's not fair. And it hasn't been for years, so why is there an acceptance?
"Look, we accept that the Super 8s are in for three years and, right now, the feedback from our members is positive about the new hurling proposals and it looks like that will get passed. But I'll take advice from any stakeholder that's in this pot."
VH: When you talk about club players, why haven't you come out in support of the CPA?
DE: "I did."
VH: But when the proposal to formally recognise the CPA went before Congress, did you speak?
DE: "No I didn't. Because I didn't feel it was my... I told them I would vote for them. I said publicly that we support the formation of the CPA. I didn't feel that I needed to speak on the floor of Congress."
VH: But do you not think that you speaking might have had a positive impact?
DE: "Possibly, if I was to go back . . . I don't think so. I acknowledged and welcomed the formation, but they didn't need me speaking on their behalf. I have 2,200 players.
They are my focus, I didn't want to take my eye off that ball. I still don't feel I need to get out and speak on behalf of the CPA. Absolutely I support their formation."
VH: But what does that support amount to? Logically, some people might argue that an amalgamation of the two bodies would be logical. After all, any solution to sorting out the calendar has got to work for both?
DE: "Absolutely and I've met them three times to see what is the red line issue for them. We are actively engaging with them and will continue to."
VH: Would you ever see amalgamation as a possibility?
DE: "The problem with that would be the funding of it. There's 150,000 club members. We're tight for funding just supporting our 2,200 members. But, for sure, we'll continue to engage with them.
"Listen I started as a club player, finished as a club player. But every game has to have some elite level, where players aspire to be. And that is, basically, what generates all the income for the GAA, which goes back down to all the clubs."
VH: But do you not worry that there's a growing separation between the two that's only going one way?
DE: "Yeah, look I don't have an exact position on it at the moment... where county players just play with their counties. Or do we tailor back the training that's being done at county level to allow players to play more with their clubs?
"Because they do want to. Especially the 15 on a county panel that aren't getting their game."
VH: But, face it, tailoring back the training just isn't going to happen.
DE: "No, it's not. So do we look at then just a total separation?"
VH: But then where do you get the county players from?
DE: "Well that's true. You see how difficult it is. Maybe down the line (amalgamation) eventually, but at the moment we just don't have the funding to cater for 150,000."
VH: Colm O'Rourke has been very critical of the GPA and has spoken of players now playing "like centrally controlled clones with little personality" which is a picture a lot of media people could certainly reconcile with what they see. What's your take on that?
DE: "Some players just don't like engaging with media, that's their preference. Take for instance the Aidan O'Shea issue - he was in the spotlight for a whole week for doing nothing but signing jerseys."
VH: But that didn't come from journalists?
DE: "No but it was sparked by the media and I suppose that's a fear. A player doesn't want to be in the media for a week. There's a control element as well with managers. They just don't like players talking as much. I suppose the coverage is coming from all angles these days."
VH: But those of us who cover all sports find it bizarre how the GAA has become the most closed, sanitised environment of all in terms of interaction. Surely the culture should be the complete opposite?
DE: "I agree. You'd love to see players feel that they could talk freely, but I do think there's a fear that whatever they say is scrutinised. There's a saturation of media out there and a player can find himself the centre of something that he didn't want to be.
"The other thing is the managers control it, they don't want to give anything away.
"But we all see how refreshing it is when somebody gives an interview and you'd love to see that a little bit more."
VH: Is it a player fear or just a managerial culture with a domino effect that even they themselves couldn't really explain?
DE: "Yeah and it just becomes a perception that this is the way to go. Maybe it's a GAA fear that's embedded in our psyche that people are afraid of a heading been put up on the opposition's dressing-room wall."
VH: I'd love a manager to show me the last time that had an impact.
DE: "Exactly, but I think it is still a fear."
VH: So how much money does the GPA actually need? Is your annual revenue now €8m?
DE: "No, we wouldn't be at €8m. Our revenue is €6.2m and an addition then of €500,000 - give or take - that fluctuates, depending on the year with fund-raising.
"But you've to be mindful that €2.7m of that goes directly to the players. In essence, we're left with about €3.5m for our programmes and, obviously, administrative costs. At the moment, we're not-for-profit. All our money is spent on players."
VH: But people see you having 'advisory boards' in US cities and an annual fund-raising event in New York, which begs the question, is there not a finite level to the amount you need if you're not-for-profit? You have a finite number of players after all . . .
DE: "Yes but not all players engage and our strategy is to get more of them to engage, in which case we need to provide funding. You can't remain static. You have to keep trying to increase resources for our players. The more players take up our services, the more it will cost."
VH: But a lot of what the GPA does seems to fall under the broad heading of 'wellness'. Many people would argue that that should be a Government responsibility?
DE: "We're dealing with elite amateur athletes and there are pressures that go with that. Some people respond differently to those pressures. There's an element of trust here. Players know that whatever problem they bring to us, whether it's to do with depression, bereavement counselling, alcohol or gambling addiction, they can come to us in confidence and we'll provide the best help for them. It's important that we provide that trust.
"Last year alone, we had 95 players. The figure is going up every year and we have to make sure that those services are there. The trust and confidentiality are very important."
VH: Do you find yourself still coming up against the old-school 'toughen-up' mentality?
DE: "Absolutely, but times change. Just because it was the way it was 20 years ago when I first started… You know this attitude of 'harden up, just get on with it'… that's not the way it is now.
"You have to evolve with the times and we have to provide for that. We mightn't have just heard about these problems 20 years ago, but everything's more out in the open now. People are encouraged to talk now and seek help. Which is much better.
"Alan O'Mara and Niall McNamee are two of our ambassadors in that regard who have been through it and come out the other side with the help of our programmes. Their stories are inspirational. And nobody will tell me that those two men aren't tough guys. Because they are."
VH: Hand on heart, the current inter-county model isn't really something, logically, that you can rein in, is it?
DE: "No I suppose it's a kind of beast, that grows and grows. But as it does, all we can do is make sure that our players are represented in the best possible way on that journey. You look at the inter-county spending now, it's colossal. Look there's so many things we need to look at to make sure it doesn't get to breaking point."
VH: Colm O'Rourke recently wrote of the GPA: "They have singularly failed to improve the outrageous demands on our best young players and player welfare has gone significantly downhill on their watch." Your reaction?
DE: "I wouldn't agree with that. I met Colm in my first couple of weeks. I played under him when he was manager for the International Rules and I respect him."
VH: Exactly so this is not a man with any agenda.
DE: "No he doesn't but, again, I think it's about an understanding of what we do. I'll be sending him this (copy of Strategic Plan 2017-19). I think player welfare standards are higher than they've ever been."
VH: But do you not think he does understand what you do, he's just saying there's got to be more to it than this?
DE: "Possibly. But all we can do is try and improve the welfare we provide. I think a lot of people want us to be more militant. They want us to go back to that role. And if we don't, what's our purpose?
"To me, that's a wrong perception. We had to be militant when we were developing. It took 11 years to get agreement with the GAA. It was six years before the GAA would even sit down with us. And where we're at now has come through forthright negotiation, and I think that's still the way to go."
VH: But do you not see how that militant past seemed a more natural dynamic for a players' body compared to the cosiness perceived today?
DE: "I can understand your question, but I don't agree with it. We have very heavy arguments with the GAA and will continue to fight for what we believe is right for our players. In terms of welfare, we've come a long way from what it used to be."
VH: You used the word 'transparency' in your media briefing this week. It was often noted that Dessie Farrell's salary was never made public - will yours be?
"Yeah we'll be submitting an annual report every year and, within that, the salaries of the staff will be included."
Do you want to say what your salary is now?
"No. If anybody wants it, they can look at our annual report."