Sport GAA

Wednesday 29 January 2020

The GPA view: Inter-county footballers give back more than they get from the game they love

Paul Flynn, GPA, CEO. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Flynn, GPA, CEO. Photo: Sportsfile

Tom Parsons and Paul Flynn

Here in an exclusive column, Mayo footballer Tom Parsons and former Dublin star Paul Flynn, who is also CEO of the Gaelic Players Association, write about the demands and pressures facing the modern-day inter-county footballer.

Tom Parsons: 'We are 100% amateur but players cannot be expected to pay to play'

I am the voluntary acting secretary of the Gaelic Players’ Association (GPA), the body that represents our inter-county players. We have an incredible indigenous game, and my passion, love and energy for Gaelic football, representing my club and county, is hard to fully express.

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I’m also passionate about the work of the GPA because of the significant difference it has made to my life away from football, in areas of career progression, giving back, life coaching and my own personal wellbeing, all of which we often forget exists underneath the jersey of an inter-county player.

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Mayo's Tom Parsons. Photo: Sportsfile

Inter-county players are pivotal role models for their local communities and Irish society. Sometimes, it’s the ‘giving back’ initiatives that the players behind the GPA drive that go unseen. For instance, the GPA partnered with the WGPA last week to engage in the ‘World’s Big Sleep Out’, a global event to help end global homelessness.

Personally, I have been lucky enough to reach out to nearly 5,000 children in schools across the country on a voluntary basis. I’ve shared with them life lessons on resilience, healthy living and positive mental health.

All of this is a ripple effect of the GPA’s Realta Programme, a healthy schools initiative that helped players reach over 100,000 children across Ireland since its inception. That is something we are very proud of.

However, I get frustrated at the misconception that players are driving an agenda to push for a professional game. We, the players, are the strongest advocates for amateurism.

We are 100 per cent amateur, but many pieces of the jigsaw surrounding our inter-county games are now professional, which in turn has created a professional playing environment.

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The findings of the recent GPA Student Report highlight some worrying statistics. More than half of our inter-county players feel overwhelmed by their commitments, and 80 per cent feel being a student-athlete puts financial pressure on their family. All players should be enjoying their sport as amateur athletes and should, at a minimum, not feel it is a financial burden on themselves or their families.

It’s imperative then that the GPA, as the voice of these players, acts in their best interests to address key welfare issues, especially for its most vulnerable members. Our games should not feel overwhelming; they should not feel like a burden on any player. Collectively we need to remove the barriers that prevent us just playing the game we love.

As secretary of the GPA, I have been involved in the recent negotiations between the GPA and the GAA. The simple stance of the players is that we should not be paid to play, but nor should we have to pay to play.

To explain: We know from last year’s ESRI report that players spend an average of 31 hours per week preparing to play, which is just five hours short of an average working week.

The GAA have acknowledged that nutrition, for example, is an expense incurred by the players in a high-performance environment.

Currently, players are reimbursed at €2.85 per day during the playing season. This is far from an adequate reflection of the actual cost incurred in meeting the nutritional plan set out by team dieticians — and it’s worth pointing out that for players who are part of a county panel, these plans are not optional.

The GPA, which represents 2,300 inter-county hurlers and footballers, base our negotiations around three core pillars of player representation, player development and, most importantly, player welfare. I hope in the coming weeks we can come to an agreed resolution that is fitting to both the GAA and the GPA, so we can get back to the important stuff, playing the game we love, being role models for the next generation and developing as people off the field.

Tom Parsons is an inter-county footballer with Mayo

Paul Flynn: 'Rookies face even greater challenges than I did when I started playing inter-county in 2006'

Six weeks ago, we hosted a GPA rookie camp for 120 young players at the start of their careers. Having hung up my boots earlier this year, I envied them.

I would do anything to have my career to do over again. It was the best experience of my life and, like me, every player is privileged to be able to represent their families, their clubs, their supporters and their mentors in their county colours.

That is the beauty of the inter-county game.

Our objective with the rookie camp was to educate our new heroes around the importance of balancing life as a player, a student and a young adult. What struck me was that this cohort face even greater challenges than I did when I started playing inter-county in 2006.

There are obvious differences, like the pressures of social media, but the biggest issue they face is balance, or to be more precise, the imbalance in their lives. And to be honest this isn't just our rookies, it's all of our players.

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6 August 2016; Paul Flynn of Dublin in action against Anthony Thompson of Donegal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Dublin and Donegal at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Balance is vital for any young player juggling their studies and playing on multiple teams, and it's equally important for an experienced player who manages the demands of family life, professional life and the investment of 31 hours per week as an inter-county player.

Balance is a core part of my belief system - player/person balance. Having just finished a 13-year playing career at the highest level, experiencing success, failure, setbacks, pressures and balancing life as a player, a husband and as a professional, I'm as qualified as anyone to speak for the players and understand their needs.

The revolution that has happened in the inter-county game is staggering. We're at a tipping point where the increasing levels of demands on amateur players is unsustainable.

Despite their love of playing the inter-county game, players are paying a price, mentally, physically and financially to do so. This causes them huge stress, and can have an adverse effect on their quality of life.

A lot of what the GPA does is about helping players to find that balance between their lives on and off the pitch.

For example, our student report and action plan was launched last month. It looks at the imbalanced lives of student inter-county players and includes a plan to makes that balance more practical.

We also organised the inaugural GPA Balance 2020 Player Welfare conference where medical practitioners shared knowledge on best practice in athlete welfare; again, with the aim of finding balance.

This is the type of work we do on a daily basis. This year alone we've worked directly with approximately 1,300 hurlers and footballers from all across the island. Our support comes in the form of education advice and support, life coaching, scholarships and a range of emotional health programmes and interventions.

There are plenty of stories that we can't speak about in detail. If we could, there would be many people connecting with these stories of depression, addiction, suicidal ideation, financial stress and benevolent cases.

These are real-life stories of people in your community of whom many believe: 'isn't his life perfect because he's on the county panel'. Trust me, there are many ups and downs and, at times, high-performing athletes can be more vulnerable than most.

The GPA is striving for a modern and sustainable form of amateurism to protect the brilliance of inter-county Gaelic games, by cherishing the people who make it possible - the players.

With all the evidence at our disposal, including the two ESRI reports (2018 and 2019) relating to inter-county players, we will continue to work to help our members to find better player-person balance to ensure that in 15 years' time, at the 2034 rookie camp, we're in a better place.

We have a modern mindset around our game. What is important to the Gaelic Players' Association is that players are respected, supported and valued in an environment that allows them to develop and grow as professionals, people and players so that they can continue to represent their families and clubs in their beloved county jersey; an honour that each of them cherish dearly.

Paul Flynn is CEO of the Gaelic Players Association and a former Dublin senior footballer

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