The honourable amateur who competes only for pride and a pat on the back is a rare breed in the modern world of professional sport. How long can top players continue to work day jobs and represent Ireland at the same time?
The International rules series in Australia has opened up a can of worms of whether Irelands GAA players should retain their amateur status. Ireland’s part-time athletes and full-time bank officials and postmen compete in front of packed houses in Perth and Adelaide. Their Australian opponents get to fulfil the dreams they have had since they were five years of age to be professional athletes eating, sleeping and playing the sport of their dreams. This compares to the Irish players whose five year old dreams hardly contained images of delivering post in the morning carrying injuries and knocks from the day before in order to make ends meet and then rushing to training sessions before repeating the process the nest day.
It is little wonder that with the success of Irish professional players in rugby, soccer and athletics that the conveyor belt of young players desire to play inter-county sports while working a job is starting to dwindle. The word amateur is defined as an athlete who has never accepted money, or who accepts money under restrictions specified by a regulatory body, for participating in a competition. GAA athletes love for the game mimic the amateur status of golfing legend Bobby Jones who won his grand slam in 1930, Eddie Keher playing hurling for Kilkenny for 18 years ending in 1977, Dr Karl Mullen captain of our last grand slam rugby team in 1948 and Ronnie Delany winner of Irelands gold medal in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Since then, the standards, expectations and demands of amateur athletes have changed. Professional demands are now placed on GAA players with continuing scrutiny from the media into their public and personal lives. The amateur athletes listed endured great hardships reaching the top of their games but the plight of inter-county GAA players receiving 13p a mile for travel as expenses and a pint of milk and a few biscuits after training as a reward were not highlighted until the formation of the players GPA association. Often, county boards had been long ignoring the medical and financial plight of seriously injured players as a result of representing their county. Headed by former Dub hero Dessie Farrell, they have been seeking improved standards through the provision of government grants to aid the financial burdens experienced by players in their quest to represent their county. It is ironic from a player’s point of view that former inter county footballers and hurlers opposed to government grants for players receive remuneration for their knowledge in other areas in the media.
The fear among the GAA fraternity is that if a player receives a reward for his services, then the man who marks the pitch at grassroots will want receive a return from his efforts. It is hard to compare the efforts from one to the other but it is the players who put bums on seats so the GAA can make money and not the grounds men. It is the player who has professional demands of training five to six days a week placed on his shoulders while trying to keep a roof over his wife’s and children’s heads working his regular job. His appearances at club level are placed on hold for the Inter county season until after his county is out of the All-Ireland. The hot-dog seller in Croke Park receives payment for his work and the GAA demand up to €50 a ticket for viewing the sporting spectacle while the gladiators perform like slaves in the coliseum known as Croke Park for pride and a pat on the back. In today’s economic climate a player cannot cash pride or a pat on the back as collateral when he is applying for a mortgage.
The GAA is left with a decision to make for the future of the game. The best players don’t always get to play on the games biggest stage in Croke Park and former greats like Tipperary footballers 2 times All Star Declan Browne never received the chances his God given talent deserved. How can the you continue to attract young talent to play for your county when there is no international platform for you to display your talents? You still have to put in the same hours to be a local hero as it takes athletes in other sports to be an International star, yet they receive multiple rewards like wages and marketing opportunities. The rugby association abandoned the previous view that you had to be born in your province to play for that team as players received contracts as a reward for their talent. League of Ireland soccer teams attracted players through payments but there are currently numerous LOI clubs experiencing financial hardship. If businesses were run like League of Ireland clubs it would not be the recession putting them out of business but bad management.
I have experienced high levels of both codes and I have lived the life of a professional athlete. A love of the game is not diminished once you receive a reward for your efforts but it just fuels your ambition and it gives you the tools to aid your recovery, recruit quality coaches to realise your potential. When I see quality players at the smaller counties you can only empathise and admire them for their efforts because the blood, sweat and tears of nights on a muddy pitch in December are rarely displayed in front of a packed stadium for longer than 70 minutes. This is in stark contrast to the Munster players who can play to packed stadiums weekly and international matches regularly. They can only thank their lucky stars that they were not born 15 years previously and playing during the times of Ollie Campbell or Dr Karl Mullen. The GAA needs to move from the dark ages if they are to continue to recruit the best players. Players must be recognised for their efforts and the games administrators must take their heads out of the sand if they want the best possible athletes in Ireland like Niall Quinn, Shane Horgan or Tadgh Keneally to perform at Croke Park rather than opt for life as a professional athlete in a different code.