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Sponsorship revenue can sometimes be a price too high

FOR whatever curious reasons, drink and the Irish has been an unusual mix. An ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol has often been seen as a mark of esteem. In general it was lauded, rarely criticised, and so it left many people who liked the odd pint in an awkward position whenever the fun, which can be part of Irish pub culture, turned into a boorish display.

This close association between the GAA and drinking evolved into a situation where the organisation accepted sponsorship from Guinness for its most prestigious competition. At the time I raised no questions, feeling it would be a bit rich to turn your back on such a good sponsor, a golden goose ready to be plucked. Why should the GAA not be the association to do the job? Former president Mick Loftus did not welcome it, speaking out vehemently against accepting sponsorship from drinks companies in general. Few listened, myself included.

The Guinness sponsorship of the hurling championship increased the profile of the game in general: for both partners it was a winner. But things have changed dramatically in Ireland over the last ten years. The easy availability of money to young people has driven the country over the edge in terms of hard drinking. The associated problems of alcohol abuse can be measured in terms of depression, alcoholism, absenteeism from work and a disruption of normal family life.

On top of that, Saturday nights in most rural towns resemble Dodge City without Wyatt Earp. The pressure on the Gardai, ambulance services and hospital accident and emergency units is intolerable, while down the line a time bomb of young alcoholics waits. The cost to the health services is enormous, but the price in human misery is much greater when the veneer of drink being fun is washed away. And perhaps even more worrying is the problem of alcohol abuse among females, which is increasing.

In GAA terms I have written about this problem before, particularly the difficulty of running minor and U21 games on Sunday mornings. Players being physically unable to turn up, an inability to perform and a total lack of interest are some of the symptoms that club officials have to contend with.

Yet I have encountered many parents of young players who say openly that they don't mind their sons having a few drinks so long as they stay away from drugs. Understandable in some ways, but it is a bit like playing with fire when you are dealing with the most destructive drug of all in Irish society.

On the one hand, therefore, you have sport in general as the greatest brake on the abuse of alcohol because of the disciplines involved in playing games, while at the same time the GAA is accepting substantial money from our biggest drinks firm. And they know a thing or two about promotion. The greatest image of all, for any product, is to be associated with success and in Ireland sporting success is huge, particularly among the youth. A successful All-Ireland team in tandem with a Guinness sign is a powerful image for teenagers.

Many readers will argue that this is hypocritical coming from me as I am heavily involved in a club with a busy bar. Simonstown Gaels in Navan is no different to many other clubs which earn a good deal of revenue from drink sales, which is then put back into the promotion of games. But there are differences. Clubhouses are essentially about social contact, not about drink per se. And above all, the sale of drink to young people is strictly supervised. It is these type of 'family pubs' which help create some community spirit, particularly in new urban areas.

The same is true of most other publicans up and down the country who support their local team through provision of gear, cash and a meeting place. In most cases they are fans and, while they want a return, the environment is usually fairly well controlled in terms of young drinkers.

So what difference would it make if the GAA decided it was time to end the sponsorship arrangement with all drinks companies and not just Guinness? Well, not a lot, but the longest journey must start with the first step and the GAA a sizeable and thriving organisation can lay down a marker for life and send out a powerful message. Sport and drink are incompatible.

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Not that the GAA are in any way responsible for the weekend mayhem in Irish towns. By that I mean groups of teenagers heading off to quiet places carrying plastic bags full of beer. Nor is it the fault of the vast majority of publicans.

IT is in the interest of the powerful drinks lobby to sort out their own rogue traders, but I am disappointed that the Minister for Justice, who should be making a mighty effort to sort out some of these problems, has been remarkably silent. Proper ID, shorter opening hours and heavier penalties for serving under age drinkers and those who have had too much would be a start.

Sometimes things get so bad in different areas of society that the general public call the shots. It happened after Veronica Guerin was murdered; it has also happened with drink driving, while cigarette smoking is now unacceptable. Drinking carries no such health warning, but is probably doing far more damage because it destroys not only those who abuse it, but everyone around them.

Perhaps the sound of the penny dropping is now being heard, but the danger of writing about this subject is that you are looked on as some sort of latter-day Matt Talbot, so I will have to accept the usual jibes when I next visit a pub for a drink, which is hardly fair on a sensitive soul like me.

If the GAA are having second or third thoughts about accepting sponsorship from companies that deal in alcohol, I would be very happy to see them implement change immediately. Sometimes the price paid for sponsorship is too high, even with the best of intentions.

We are fast replacing the English as the lager louts of Europe ... and we are not even shocked by the trend.

A great sporting organisation has to stand for something more than the highest bidder.

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