Time to go pro

By Seán O’Neill

Certainly one of the biggest issues within the GAA over the last 20 years or so has been the question over whether ‘pay-for-play’ should be introduced. Traditionalists throughout the country would certainly argue that the whole idea of professionalism would taint the proud nature of our national games.

People may argue that the amateur ethos of the Association is central to its survival but, with demand from players for more justifiable expenses, it is becoming increasingly likely that professionalism is just over the horizon for the GAA.

The Gaelic Players Association was established in 1999 with the aim of gaining extra rights and recognition for players and has been highly successful since when, earlier this year, the GAA and the GPA’s adversary signed a joint five year deal worth €8.5 million to contribute to player welfare. Many have criticised the GPA as they feel that they only have one goal in mind; professionalism.

The hierarchy of the GAA have long stated that they are committed to ensuring the amateur status of the Association, but the players deserve more than this. They currently get a pitiful grant of less than €1,000 a year for their efforts.

Critics of professionalism have said that paying players would simply not be sustainable in such a small country as ours. This is remarkable when we see figures released which state that the players and fixtures they play in, directly or indirectly, contribute €192 million to the Irish economy annually. With massive amounts of capital being amassed by the organisation, surely the people who make it all possible should be the ones who receive the majority of this income.

Instead, the administrators and executives exploit honest players for their own benefit. The President of the GAA, Liam O’Neill, earns in the region of €100,000 a year while the players only get a few hundred euro, depending on their progress throughout the year.

This exploitation can mainly be traced back to the amateur status of the players. For the players to break free from these shackles, professionalism must be realised. Gaelic games are unique in sport due to the fact that practically all other sports operate professionally.

This has manifested itself into a major issue for the GAA, as young talented athletes are beginning to choose the discipline in which they will earn a salary. It’s an easy choice for these young stars. There have been several cases where possible young stars of the future have chosen rugby or soccer over Gaelic football and hurling.

The discipline in which this is most obvious is Australian Rules Football. With Aussie Rules being so similar to Gaelic football, agents and scouts of AFL clubs have made Ireland a breeding ground. Players between 17 and 24 with extreme talent are being targeted by Australian clubs with sets of trials being organised regularly by clubs.

These trials have seen players such as Marty Clarke and Tommy Walsh travel to the southern hemisphere to try establish themselves in a professional sport. The latest acquisition has seen 19 year-old Ciaran Kilkenny sign as a rookie for Hawthorn. He stated that the lure of testing himself in a professional environment was too hard to turn down.

To add to the GAA’s woes, Tadhg Kennelly, the only man to have won an AFL Premiership and All-Ireland medal, has been appointed to oversee an academy within Ireland to source Irish players for a career in the AFL.

The powers that be at Croke Park simply cannot stand idly by. There has been a constant trickle of gifted Irish players to Australia over the last decade. As long as amateurism remains, the possibility of this turning into a flood is a distinct possibility.

Another discrepancy on the part of the GAA is the illegitimate payment to managers at county level as well as club level. Although managers receive travelling expenses, it seems that county boards have been in breach of the organisation rules on amateur status for an extended period.

In a recent survey carried out on this grey area, five county boards were revealed to be paying senior county managers more than the outlined amount in their travelling expenses. With a high-ranking official from each county surveyed, 21 out of 32 believed that illegal payments are prevalent.

In a team sport such as this, the manager and the players must feel united if any type of success if to be achieved. How must a player feel sitting a in a dressing room alongside his manager or coach who is getting paid handsomely while he remains empty handed for his endeavours?

Promises have been made to make amendments to ensure managers receive the correct payment of 50 cent a mile travelled to training sessions. If this problem is not addressed players will begin to feel even more aggrieved and protest such as strikes could be possible.

Former GAA Presidential candidate Sean Fogarty earlier this year argued that the GAA would fall to pieces with the onslaught of professionalism. Old-school purists of the game believe that professionalism will ruin the identity of the parishes and rural areas of Ireland. This simply wouldn’t happen.

The club game would remain the same within every county, while elite players would progress to county level. More money would be pumped into our games and this would see football and hurling thriving like never before.  The template the GAA can work from is rugby where it was argued that the grassroots level would be destroyed. Since rugby turned professional in 1995, it has grown dramatically. Professionalism is ultimately inevitable within the GAA.

Amateurism works best

By Shane Hannon

When the GAA was founded on Saturday November 1st 1884 in the billiards room of Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary, no-one could have foreseen the ever-present and vital role the Association would go on to play in Irish society.

The GAA was founded by men who wished to “foster a spirit of earnest nationality”, and it really is hard to ignore its political origins. Today, however, the GAA is a true global phenomenon with over one million members worldwide.

It lays claim to the title of the greatest amateur sporting organisation in the world. The key word to focus on is amateur; the GAA was founded as an amateur association, and in my opinion that is the way things should stay.

Within the past decade, the competitiveness of Gaelic games has peaked. Some would argue that the training and fitness levels and the sheer amount of time spent training would make you think it was a professional organisation, and yet no players, coaches or officials get paid.

For example, when on their way to winning last year’s All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, the Dublin side often trained twice a day, including one session at 6am. It cannot be denied that counties are taking matters more seriously than ever, but this just highlights the desire to win that is prevalent within the game. Players don’t need financial gain as an incentive; the love of the game will clearly suffice.

The GAA is spreading globally faster than ever, and so there is pressure being put on for it to enter the professional ranks, but the association shouldn’t buckle. In soccer, for instance, it’s indisputable that some players become greedier with every penny they get, and we can’t let that ugliness enter the psyches of GAA players.

Assuming only county players would get paid if the GAA did turn professional; many club players who feel they should be playing at an inter-county level would feel hard-done by. That’s not to mention the transfer controversies that would undoubtedly arise; many top players playing with small counties would want to move to play with the bigger ones in order to follow the money trail.

Strong counties would get stronger, while the weaker counties would only get weaker. In essence, the entertainment value of those sports we love dearly would disappear forever. Not only would players move to bigger counties, but many more players would likely move abroad, where GAA clubs often benefit from more funding. If the association does go down the road of professionalism, it could have abhorrent consequences for Irish society as a whole.

In spite of the amateur status, it’s not as though GAA players aren’t compensated for their efforts. You’ll often find that inter-county players get paid travel expenses, and the top players regularly get advertising fees for wearing particular products or for appearing in TV commercials.

They may not get paid to the extent of professional players in other sports like soccer or golf, but socially, morally and ethically the GAA is richer than all of these sports combined. GAA players get their thrill out of not only winning games, but also playing an Irish sport alongside their friends. They are supported by people from their local area.

So what are the thoughts of the players themselves on the matter? In November 2010, after being accused of fighting for a ‘pay-for-play’ system, the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) announced it was in fact committed to the amateur status of the GAA. As part of a deal earlier this year, the GPA will be supporting the amateur status of the association for the next five years.

This deal guarantees the GPA €1.5 million a year of the GAA’s money, with this will rising to €2 million a year from 2015. It’s evident that the GAA and the GPA are on the same wavelength, and that the players themselves fully back the decision not to go professional, so why would we even consider that prospect?

The GAA released a discussion paper in January of this year on the matter of keeping the association neutral, in which they made it clear that any person who accepts payment in conjunction with the playing of Gaelic Games is liable to a 24-week suspension or even expulsion.

GAA clubs and county boards can’t afford to pay managers and players at any time, let alone in the current economic climate, so why should they have to? If the GAA turned professional, it would go against the fundamental ethos of the organisation: that it functions essentially on the basis of the voluntary efforts of its members.

Some players would be playing for the money rather than the love of the sport, and we cannot let that happen. Armagh’s former All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Benny Tierney once stated: “Professionalism in our association could never work and would effectively destroy our wonderful games.” The GAA is a national treasure and an association that should never be polluted by professionalism.