Pay for managers may well lead to pay for play

Wed, Feb 8, 2012, 00:00

Is there an argument that the GAA is on an unavoidable course towards the shelving of amateurism?

IT WASN’T, as the GAA are proud to put it from time to time and obviously when the claim is justified, the biggest crowd in Europe but Saturday evening in Croke Park saw the 2012 season get off the blocks and events have come thick and fast since.

Just as the Super Bowl generated its own controversy over the musical entertainment because of the “extended finger” gesture by British artist MIA (a rapper giving gratuitous offence – surely not), the GAA gave a lower-profile stage to the Rubberbandits to maintain the integrity of their art by leaving the profane lyrics of Horse Outside un-amended.

Apart from prompting some head shaking about the number of children present, the performance didn’t elicit very much in the way of outrage. No one appears to have asked GAA president Christy Cooney if he approved of such things, which is a pity because it would have been reminiscent of a promisingly concocted plan from over 20 years ago.

I can’t even remember if it came to anything but the idea was to inquire of one of Cooney’s predecessors as Cork chair, the colourful Denis Conroy, how he felt about some of Prince’s lyrics, which would be solemnly intoned to him over the telephone in advance of the Cork date, at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, of the menacingly entitled “Nude Tour”.

By Monday the Rubberbandits were back in the news anyway with “Lar Outside” – a parody of their best-known song by Johnny B and the Boogie Men in tribute to the 2010 hurler of the year – suddenly topical with the revelation that Lar Corbett had left the building down in Tipperary. This coincided with speculation and subsequent confirmation John Mullane was about to take a break from intercounty hurling in Waterford.

That two high-profile players should be questioning their ability to give the necessary commitment to the intercounty game was of itself timely in the weeks that have followed the release of the GAA discussion document on the prohibited payment of senior county managers. There had been plenty of reaction to the document with intercounty managers split on the idea and some players suggesting such payments would inevitably lead to pay for play.

Less publicly ventilated were the views of some at the in camera meeting of county officials at Croke Park, who made some preliminary remarks on the discussion document. Among the contributors were those who believed the arrival of professionalism – or more accurately semi-professionalism and pay for play – was inevitable and that the payment of managers would be just another notch on the ratchet.

Viewed dispassionately, this is hard to dispute. Leaving aside the merits of the cases both for and against amateurism – the impracticality of the GAA being able to fund such a thing on the one hand and the intensity of the commitment necessary to engage with the top levels of intercounty competition – is there an argument that the GAA is on an unavoidable course towards the shelving of amateurism?

Certainly no other sports have managed to embrace the extent of commercialisation evident with the GAA in the past 20 years as well as slowly loosening the restrictions on remuneration in the way the association has.

In the debate to come in respect of managers, it will be open to the GAA to say no – no managers and coaches in the intercounty game should receive monetary compensation for the amount of time they dedicate to the task. But should that happen, will the association follow up with more stringently enforced regulations? Remember it’s not just the restricted range of cans of worms at county level that have to be scrutinised, refilled and sealed. Will there be the desire to establish a band of Croke Park “Untouchables”, dedicated to following money trails up and down the country?

A crackdown may inhibit the commercial transactions being conducted at present but how thoroughly is another question. To an extent the debate is redundant because vast numbers of GAA members choose to pay or connive in the payment of managers all around the country and it is nearly impossible to see a revision of that attitude so heartfelt that the practice will come to a halt.

As previously stated the erosion of amateurism has been an incremental process. As soon as the GAA has experienced shortfalls in the numbers of volunteers necessary to do certain jobs, they have eventually paid others to do them. Should the debate on intercounty managers arrive at the conclusion that they should be paid, they will simply become the latest group of operatives within the association to fall into this category.

And it needs to be remembered that for many managers the task is a chore, albeit one in which they passionately believe and conscientiously discharge. The big beasts in the GAA jungle repeatedly insist they don’t have to pay their managers and whereas this is undoubtedly true in many if not most cases, not all managers can lighten the burden of their responsibilities by plausibly aspiring to win All-Irelands.

Should the GAA regularise these payments, will it be any more possible to draw the line there than it has been to restrict the commercial exploitation of their playing careers by intercounty footballers and hurlers?

There was a time when players weren’t allowed take money for writing columns in newspapers. Now they’re allowed benefit from a range of commercial activities, endorsements, advertisements etc, etc, previously restricted to products in their line of work. The idea that such income would have to be shared with the other players in the panel, a stipulation recommended in the 1997 Amateur Status Report, was quickly and discreetly dropped.

Put bluntly, anything to do with money has been subject to the ratchet effect.

Not all players necessarily want to be paid for playing. The more career-orientated don’t always want the games occupying any more of their lives than is strictly necessary. But the demands of the intercounty game have long outstripped the purely recreational and it’s no surprise to see players like Corbett and Mullane decide that they need a break from it all.

Maybe it’s possible to rethink the games and place limits on the amount of training before the clamour of players for remuneration becomes irresistible – and that won’t happen because of a change of rule but with the steady growth of under-the-counter payments that eventually demands a change of rule.

But being realistic that looks like getting the genie back in the bottle. How many of us really believe that will happen?