Monday 23 October 2017

Hold the back page: No one does outrage quite like us

Billy Walsh watches the Women’s Olympic Boxing team trials at Memphis Cook Convention Centre
Billy Walsh watches the Women’s Olympic Boxing team trials at Memphis Cook Convention Centre

Eamonn Sweeney

I'm glad Billy Walsh has gone to America. Glad I tell you. Glad, glad, glad. Ahem. I am glad, though. Because if there's one thing which has been confirmed by another week of the sub-standard soap opera which has followed the Wexford man's decampment to the US, it's that the Irish boxing team's erstwhile head coach is well shot of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association.

And also that he would have been nuts to accept the new contract offered by the IABA, or any new contract offered by them for that matter. Given that such a contract would have been offered under a certain degree of duress and also been a short-term one, to accept it would have required the trusting nature displayed by Othello and Banquo toward their old muckers Iago and Macbeth.

What we learned over the last week was pretty much what everyone suspected all along. Billy Walsh was in the right and the IABA was in the wrong. He may not have been as entirely in the right as his most fervent partisans claimed and the IABA may have had a point or two in the argument, but these are fine distinctions. The gist of it is that Walsh is the one who's entitled to have a clear conscience on the matter. Given what had transpired between both parties, the only surprise is that someone from the IABA didn't buy him a one-way ticket and volunteer to fly the plane bringing him over there.

So I hope Billy Walsh makes a huge success of his new job, that the US women's boxing team win many Olympic medals, that he gets to run the men's programme as well, that he becomes an expert skier on the slopes of Colorado, makes the cover of Sports Illustrated and becomes such a ubiquitous figure in American sporting culture that Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon make affectionate jokes about him in their start-of-show monologues.

However, I'm not prepared to go along with the portrayal of Billy Walsh as a tragic figure. In some quarters the story's been written like the equivalent of some 19th century melodrama which ends with an innocent young maiden dying in the workhouse after being ruined by some priapic aristocrat. In reality it's been more like one of those Dickensian tales where our hero endures the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune but comes through them all and falls in for a fortune which gives him the last laugh over his tormentors.

In fact, some of the more mournful commentary has reminded me of the observation made by Herman J Mankiewicz, the great screenwriter of Citizen Kane, after seeing one of those plays about the soul-destroying effect of success: "Here's this wealthy playwright who has repeated successes and has earned enormous sums of money, has mistresses as well as a family, an expensive townhouse, a luxurious beach house and a yacht. The problem is: How did the son of a bitch get into this jam?"

The inconvenient truth for those with a penchant for martyr creation is that Billy Walsh has done well out of the whole farrago. He's not Michael being ferried overseas for stealing Trevelyan's corn, he's a man who's been head hunted for a prestigious high-profile job.

Walsh was, of course, treated poorly over the years, subjected to numerous slights, the worst of which was the stubborn refusal of the IABA to upgrade him to High Performance Director, something which cost him a few quid. The damage, as my mother used to say, was done at that stage. Yet I'm inclined to think that for the coach at least, this story has a happy ending.

Like any man in his 50s Walsh is reluctant to uproot himself from a country he's known all his life. Yet I wonder if before long he won't wonder why he didn't make the move sooner and why he ever considered spending the next few years butting heads with the IABA. Irish athletics coaches, the likes of Ray Treacy, Marcus O'Sullivan and the greatest of them all, John McDonnell, have made an enormous impact Stateside. Walsh can have the same impact. Who isn't excited to see how it works out for him?

It's hard to see the story of a man who's taking up a job with a six-figure salary as a tearjerker. And yes, Walsh has said that his falling out with the IABA wasn't about the money. But he has spoken in the past about his frustration at being underpaid so it's more accurate to say that it wasn't all about the money. Who would turn down a big pay rise? Billy Walsh is one of the more impressive characters in Irish sport, there's no need to gild the lily by portraying him as some kind of ascetic saint.

There seemed to me something a bit odd about portraying a man who was earning twice the average industrial wage and departing to a job where he'll be earning three times that wage as a tragic figure. Because the sad fact is that people on far lower wages get treated far worse at work and there are no Dáil Committees, ministers and indeed sports columnists worrying on their behalf. One reason the tale of the petty slights inflicted on Billy Walsh struck such a chord is that too many people know exactly what that kind of thing is like. In the absence of job offers from America, however, most have no choice but to endure them.

Sport functions sometimes as a kind of distorting mirror which prevents people from relating its concerns to those of the real world. You have, for example, the intervention of Michael Ring, who jumped in to try and secure Walsh a pay rise. Ring is a member of a government whose austerity policies have resulted in people all over this country losing money. It is a government which has presided over pay cuts in the public service and gloried in doing so.

Similarly Kenneth Egan, who regaled the press with tales of how Walsh had been reduced to tears by the cruelty of the IABA, is a Fine Gael councillor. An awful lot of people have cried because of the austerity policies implemented by the party to which Egan pledges allegiance. There are in fact people who've committed suicide because of them. So Kenneth Egan's opinion on this matter is essentially worthless if not downright hypocritical.

For that matter, while I'd cast no aspersions on the honesty of individual journalists who've spoken out in favour of Billy Walsh - Vincent Hogan in particular has done tremendous work on this story - the fact is that the papers some of us work for often take very different positions on this type of issue. Newspapers bemoaning the fact that Billy Walsh didn't have a guaranteed pension often bemoan the fact that public sector workers have precisely that kind of pension. And the shock expressed at the IABA's attempt to put Walsh on a short-term contract might be slightly more convincing were newspapers not increasingly employing people on precisely those terms.

In fact, if you were to go by the right-wing pundits whose opinions dominate Irish newspapers, the way Billy Walsh was treated is the way they'd like to see employees in general treated. As minions. So there was a lot of hypocrisy about.

You could argue that Billy Walsh was a special case. But I don't personally think he contributed any more to Irish society than a nurse, teacher or garda. In the end the result of his departure may be that we win fewer Olympic medals in Rio than we would have otherwise. It's hard to see what difference that will make to the country at large. You could even argue that the money spent on all the high performance programmes could profitably be diverted to grassroots level where more people would benefit. That would be a debate worth having. But there wouldn't be many headlines in it so don't expect the Dáil Committee to be tackling it anytime soon.

Next outrage please.

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