Sunday 15 December 2019

'There has been so much bullsh**' - Dessie Farrell denies merger of convenience between GPA and GAA

Gaelic Players Association chief answers charges that his union has been muted by its GAA funding

“We have been very lucky that there has been not a lot more suicides in the GAA,” says Dessie Farrell. “It’s literally (in some cases) come down to seconds.
“We have been very lucky that there has been not a lot more suicides in the GAA,” says Dessie Farrell. “It’s literally (in some cases) come down to seconds." Photo:Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Some criticism of the GPA's decision to forge a formal alliance with the GAA brings to mind a joke Joan Rivers told about Brad Pitt, where he awakes one day from a pot-smoking haze and asks Angelina Jolie: "Who owns all these kids?"

When Dessie Farrell was the GPA's first representative on the Central Council he felt discernible "hostility" in the room. He expected it because of the fractious period they lived in. And now it is chummy and free of rancour and people seem confused. How did it come to this?

"You have to remember the time," he says, "this whole movement was very, very new. You had situations in counties where managers were warning players off signing (GPA) membership forms. There was all this hysteria about the thing. And that (the change) would be pretty typical about how the relationships between athletes and sports federations have evolved across the world."

The relationship over the five years of their agreement, which is now up for renegotiation, has been described as warm and workmanlike on both sides. Those who identify the GPA with their earlier protests, the brazen trespass of Congress and the nuclear option of the player strikes, have difficulty reconciling that militancy with the current generation of shirt and tie. It seems too cosy and for some the GAA has won the day by defusing the threat, to the point where the players' body is now subsumed into the system and no longer a radical force.

To Farrell this is too simplistic and overlooks some key imperatives, not least the fact, he notes, that the independence of the union is enshrined in the current contract, signed in 2011. All very well, but has that independence been demonstrated sufficiently in the five years since or is it simply a line on a page? Through protracted negotiations, and getting recognised was a slow process, Farrell says there developed a better mutual appreciation of both sides of the argument. Converge was natural and not a trap.

"Players now sit, or have representation, on committees and workshops, so they have more influence," says Farrell. "And we can go directly to the hierarchy on any issue. So what has happened is that the need for megaphone diplomacy has eroded over that period of time. We do disagree on issues, we have disputes, there is still a lot of union activity that goes on. But this idea that we have been silenced by the cheques is misleading.

"There has been so much bullshit around this, people saying 'oh they are getting money and they are getting funded now so they have gone silent, they are no longer the true GPA'. But we actually fought tooth-and-nail to be funded by the GAA. Ours is a player association model you will see all over the world."

The rejection of the GPA's proposals on restructuring the football championship is seen in some respects as an example of the GAA showing scant regard for player views. Even if they felt the proposals were flawed, the lack of interest has threatened to stir tensions between the two parties ahead of negotiations on a new five-year deal.

The reaction to their proposals did not surprise Farrell but it does frustrate him and the content of the proposals, preserving the provincial championships, did not go far enough for his liking. "Ours was one of the first proposals submitted and I just knew from the deafening silence from the other side that this hadn't gone well at all at all. We never put it forward as a panacea but felt there were elements that could be used.

"It is a painstaking exercise. There were divergent views but we kept drilling and to be fair the squads were responsive and eventually we were able to pull something together that was somewhat coherent."

They have been in touch with the county squads and he says the strongest feeling is coming from those in Division 4 who stand to lose most if the Central Council motion is passed at Congress next month. He says the players have more than once stated their objections to a 'B' championship but this has been overlooked. "The question for them is: if this goes through are they willing to participate? That's one they need to answer."

This raises the possibility of strike action, if the motion, which requires two-thirds support, passes. "I would say, yeah, that is a live motion for some," says Farrell. "But every squad is different."

He feels the relationship between the GAA and GPA has matured over the five years. "I think it would be fair to say that the test of the GPA from a GAA perspective is to see if they were true about what they say they are about - player development and player welfare. And I think we have definitely proved our bona fides in that regard."

The original agreement was worth over €8million and the GPA will be looking for improved terms. Some commentary has focused on the GPA's frequent fundraisers in the US and pay levels for their staff, which is now up to 12, roughly doubled over the course of the five-year agreement. "It comes back to governance. We have a board, we have an independent finance ­committee, an independent ­renumeration ­committee. There is absolutely best practice in place there. We just have to be ­beyond reproach in all of that. This isn't top-of-the-head stuff; there are experts in that area who are trained on what the pay rate has to be."

They are currently in talks with the Government on the issue of player grants, which were drastically reduced, almost four-fold decrease, to €700,000. The players' mileage, which has stayed at 50c a mile, is also due for review. The main priority is a new deal with the GAA, however. "We have had initial discussions on that, and I wouldn't be talking out of school to say they are challenging. But that's typical of how these evolve."

He is satisfied they are on the right course and their closer relations with the GAA doesn't compromise their identity. "I think we need to be confident in our own ability to get things done. There are going to be no knee-jerk reactions. We are not going to dance to any one else's tune because the lads on Off The Ball might think we should be hitting the streets with placards, you know. Ultimately, we take our lead from our members, they will provide us with the mandate one way or the other."

Farrell reiterates the line that club fixtures are not their responsibility but adds that their proposals with regard to the inter-county championship considered the implications for club fixtures, and club players. He also refers to their comprehensive Student Report issued last April which examined player burnout and found that the issue was not as widespread as widely thought. Farrell has substantial first-hand experience of working with minor and under-21 teams and their research showed that those affected were a "small cohort" and for a limited period of time in the year. The report also contained a proposal for an under-20 championship identical to that being forwarded to Congress as a motion. He feels many of these contributions are largely ignored or missed.

Their emphasis on players' ­emotional wellbeing has also attracted criticism, with the charge that this is a field for which services exist outside of the GPA, which funds counsellors to treat ­players suffering from depression. ­Farrell sees the scepticism as being ­indicative of a cynicism in society. But he is ­heartened by the response of players' family ­members. "They will take the time to send you a letter, an email or even ­sometimes ring you. It's at that stage you see how important that programme is. There is a father waking up somewhere in the country that has a son because of this - he will openly tell you that.

"And people can have a cynical view of that if they want. They say those services exist but you just need to listen to the news bulletins to see the pressure one the health service in this country. It is collapsing. At Christmas we had a player who presented himself to A&E in a high state of anxiety and he was a couple of hours later sent off with a note to attend a therapist in two-and-a-half months' time."

The GPA has helped remove much of the stigma surrounding these issues. Conor Cusack, who has spoken about his own battles with depression, is a recent addition to the GPA staff. "We have been very lucky that there has been not a lot more suicides in the GAA," he states. "It's literally (in some cases) come down to seconds. One of reasons for me getting involved in the GPA is that I have always felt that this idea of using county players just handing out medals did a vast disservice to the impact they could have in a wider number of areas. The GPA, through the awareness campaign around this, has had a massive impact in a lot of different areas around the country."

As for the argument that this can be handled outside the GPA, Cusack says the services are "crap" and not capable of dealing with the demands, citing a figure for male suicide that is double the UK, though service investment is well below what it needs to be. "We are dealing with this at the coalface and if someone thinks that by sorting out the fixtures that this is going to solve the other issues they are living in cloud cuckoo land.

"People are human beings first and foremost, we see them as people before we see them as sportspeople."

Farrell says that research shows gambling more prevalent among players, by as much as three-to-one, therefore reinforcing the need to offer some assistance to those affected. "We have these programmes and you list them off and they almost become like wallpaper, nobody actually notices. There are situations where we can help save lives and people can be flippant about it."

Farrell is keen to stress that, while important, this support service is only one string in their bow even if it attracts much attention. Criticism of their fundraising in America ignores the value it offers in supporting their player development programmes, including scholarships.

Around 400 players benefit from GPA scholarships at present, with students now accounting for 30 per cent of their membership of over 2,000. They make around four US visits a year including one major event and avoid cutting into the fundraising territory of local clubs, leaning instead on Irish-American philanthropists. This can provide as much as 15 per cent of their annual revenue streams. Their total income in 2103 was 3.7m, with 49 per cent from central GAA funding.

"It is money coming in from outside of the system," says Farrell. "The only way of getting this money is go back to the GAA and kick up a stink and threaten the divil and all or we try and be more pro-active ourselves.

"The demand for programmes is increasing annually and funding is always going to be a challenge. County boards are doing this too. It's far from a junket, it's tough work and for any of the players who have been out there on those trips with us, they are on a itch schedule."

Five years on, is if he is satisfied at the point at which they've arrived. "You definitely have to say we have come on a long journey. Our ambition all along has been to provide the type of programmes and services we are doing currently and make a real impact on a player's life.

"So he is not disadvantaged or leaves the game embittered as previous players may have done."

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