Sunday 25 February 2018

Ger Gilroy: In Ireland, if you're high profile enough you can assault bouncers and scream at the cops

‘The 49ers finally bailed on Aldon Smith when he was arrested for the fifth time in three years’. Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
‘The 49ers finally bailed on Aldon Smith when he was arrested for the fifth time in three years’. Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Ger Gilroy

The Blind Side, the Michael Lewis book and Sandra Bullock movie, explains neatly why left tackles get paid so much money in the NFL. They're the fat but athletic guys who take bullets for the quarterback as the opposition's wrecking balls seek to decapitate them.

 Over time it dawned on everyone that injured quarterbacks were bad for business, so the wrecking balls had to change their games. The position group, known as pass rushers, mutated and became more sophisticated. Now they try to knock the quarterback while pretending they were actually going for the ball. Those who perfect the art of getting to the quarterback are highly prized. They get paid.

Free agency in the NFL has just opened; it's the one time when players can turn the tables on their team's owners and find out their real value on the open market. Aldon Smith, pass rusher, should be getting paid.

The franchise tag for an outside linebacker in 2017 is pegged at around $15m per season. The tag is a contractual mechanism a team can use to force a single player to stay on its books for another year at the end of his contract: it guarantees him a minimum of the average salaries of the top five players at his position. It's always decent money and it sets the market for your talent.

For a generational talent, like Smith was when drafted seventh in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, the tag is generally on the low side of salary expectations. Smith could easily be hitting free agency this year after coming off a couple of seasons of franchise tagging or could be hitting his third contract and megabucks, but his chaotic personal life got in the way. Or that's the story the league tells.

Still only 27, he's currently suspended, with the commissioner due to rule next week on potential reinstatement after serving a full year suspension. On the opening day of free agency, he was detained when the car he was a passenger in hit a police car. It's not a great look. As lesser talents sign deals totalling tens of millions of guaranteed dollars, Smith will earn a base salary of $1.25m in 2017 if he's fortunate enough to get reinstated.

The 49ers finally bailed on Aldon Smith when he was arrested for the fifth time in three years in 2015. That was an arrest for a hit and run, driving under the influence (DUI) and vandalism, and it followed a string of high-profile incidents and arrests, including charges of drunken driving and possession of assault rifles. But through it all Aldon Smith was good at sport. He set all sorts of records in his first two seasons in the league, and even when the 49ers had had their fill, the Oakland Raiders decided he was worth a punt. For Smith, there were no real repercussions until his various issues had a hold of him. As the trouble mounted so did the excuses. Get him on the field at whatever cost. Win now and pay later. It's a familiar story.

The short-term gain never truly benefits anyone. Wouldn't the NFL and the 49ers be better off having a 27-year-old who had experienced the full rigours of the law and come out the other side of his troubles? If his crimes warranted a short spell in prison, so be it. We treat sports people differently from the moment they display any talent and then wonder why they act differently to mere civilians in real life.

Niall Quinn told us on Off the Ball last year about a footballer at Sunderland who called the club's liaison officer just after moving into a new house. The liaison officer arrived to a befuddled footballer and his wife in their kitchen demanding they fix the washing machine, which was just not doing the job properly when it came to cleaning the clothes. The 'washing machine' was a dishwasher.

The stories of professional footballers being incapacitated by over attentive agents and clubs are legion. They're funny in isolation and no-one has sympathy for idiot millionaires, but the same principles apply to dealing with the real world. Quinn himself talked openly about the difficulty upon retirement of assimilating into everyday life, despite the fact he'd been exposed to a media career, gone over to England relatively late, led player political movements for the PFA and was a really smart guy. If it can happen to someone as self-possessed and articulate as Quinn it can happen to anyone.

Clearly bending the law for a sports person is a much more sinister development than doing their laundry, but it's all on a curve. Once we decided that winners and winning was the only thing then everything else happened automatically.

It's not a problem peculiar to the NFL. In Ireland it often feels like we have a different legal system where, if you're high-profile enough, you can assault bouncers and scream at the cops who come to arrest you, and the judge will fix your trial date for a week when you don't have a game. They'll give you community service away from your own community in case it might embarrass you if you played a bit of ball. You'll avoid a criminal record if you pay a fine into the poor box because you're an All Star nominee.

In 2002, Charlie McCreevy codified the strata of professional sports people in Ireland as different when he introduced a tax regime that refunds them 40 per cent of the tax they pay in their 10 biggest years earning. At the time it was sold as a way of bribing our best players to stay and play rugby here, but it applies to everyone from cyclists to runners to footballers, boxers and jockeys. The tax breaks are also the original impetus behind the grants paid to inter-county GAA players for doing their hobby.

Clearly we love our sportspeople in Ireland and no-one could ever honestly begrudge them their earnings. But do we really want them to pay less tax than us? And why is the taxpayer footing a grants bill for GAA players - surely that's a matter for the GAA?

The problem begins with our own curious relationship with winning. We are so consumed with winning that we don't really care about an arrest here or a fight there. The cliché that's supposed to protect GAA player from becoming like the cross-channel footballer is the cold clammy threat of work every Monday after a big game. What if that protective arm from a well-meaning wealthy supporter lands a player a job they're not really suited for; what if that career path designed to free up time to play football isn't the right path? How many frustrated teachers are there out there who picked the profession so they'd be free to hurl or chase a summer dream?

We treat sportspeople differently, and it doesn't work for us and it doesn't work for them. The next time a rugby player or an intercounty footballer beats someone up in a nightclub, send them for a few weeks' holidays in the Joy. And when they come out make them pay their taxes. They'll thank us for it eventually.

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