GAA complacent to the point of contempt in its treatment of media coverage

Keith Duggan: Gagging of players will ensure other sports inevitably fill the resulting void

Brian Hogan: Tipperary goalkeeper turned up  at the media event for the launch of the Higher Education Championships but would not address any questions concerning Tipperary hurling. Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Brian Hogan: Tipperary goalkeeper turned up at the media event for the launch of the Higher Education Championships but would not address any questions concerning Tipperary hurling. Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

 

A few years ago, a group of journalists stood speaking with a hurler immediately after a national league game.

The who’s and the where’s are irrelevant and hazy at this stage; just know that there was a razor-sharp wind and a glassy sky and that even the local dogs were wearing parka jackets and dreaming of a warm fire and a black pint.

This guy had hurled hard for 70 minutes but still, he was shivering (although possibly in anticipation of returning to the managerial dressing room). He’d obliged the group by stopping to answer a few quick questions.

Most GAA players – and managers – are very decent in this way. Because media arrangements are loose – to put it politely – at national league games, conversations are often like this: snatched, on the move, the team bus idling in neutral and the wind whistling and the groundsman jangling his big bunch of keys like a prison warden out of a Stephen King novel.

Even when their team and their day has sucked big-time, managers and senior players show up and answer questions – often with good grace, sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes with imperious arrogance – but always, they show.

On this day, the hurler in question batted away some question or other with a passing reference to his understanding that “you boys have to sell papers”.

It was a bleakly illuminating moment.

This was a really good hurler in a era when hurlers were wearing helmets and saying virtually nothing so that their personalities were obscured; the idea that his remarks on anything had the power to shift units of newspapers from shelves was delusional in the extreme.

That small, lost moment came back with the recent flurry of media indignation after Tipperary’s goalkeeper, Brian Hogan, was instructed not to answer any questions about the general subject of Tipperary at a sponsored media event to launch of the Higher Education Championships.

The instruction reportedly came from Tipp’s management. If you tried to stage an event to portray the farcical reality of the state of GAA/media relationships, you couldn’t do better than this. It’s gone beyond a joke.

Brian Hogan’s on-field role involves trying to stop goals and deliver good passes in a relentlessly fast field game; it involves courage, exceptional dexterity and reflexes, lightning decision-making and fail-safe self-assurance.

Routine questions

Yet he wasn’t trusted to attend a pre-arranged publicity event and answer what would have been fairly routine questions about Tipperary, one of the traditional grandees of hurling. He wasn’t permitted, in other words, to behave like an adult.

It placed Hogan in an invidious position. Here he was, invited in his capacity as a player in the Higher Education Championships. It’s a reasonable assumption that the PR team organising the event asked Hogan because, as a senior Tipp player, he is one of better known college players in that competition.

When the Tipperary management became aware of the event, a circular was issued to journalists clarifying Hogan would in no circumstances be answering questions pertaining to Tipperary hurling during his appearance.

In issuing that instruction, Liam Sheedy wasn’t being awkward or purposefully obstructing the media from doing their job. But he was trying to do what an increasing number of GAA managers believe is necessary ie, to censor and control and limit what their players might say in public.

Sheedy has returned to manage his native county after a troubling season during which they lost their way. Two All-Irelands delivered in a decade of lavishly gifted hurlers is a disappointing return. This is the start of the new regime.

Joe Canning: gave extensive interviews during the 2017season. The sky didn’t fall. He finished the year with an All-Ireland medal and Hurler of the Year award. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Joe Canning: gave extensive interviews during the 2017 season. The sky didn’t fall. He finished the year with an All-Ireland medal and Hurler of the Year award. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

In recent years, Sheedy has been a regular and enjoyable analyst on the Sunday Game. He has, in other words, been part of the media. He understands how it works. He must have known the instruction left Hogan in an impossible position. Leaving one of his players exposed in this way was a strange move.

The national leagues start next week. There will be a blizzard of sponsorship-driven media events to publicise league and championships. Players who attend these events are compensated for their time by the sponsors; it’s a way of earning a few quid from a sport to which they essentially devote themselves.

Media organisations still cover these events while becoming increasingly sceptical as to their worth and relevance.

Once the season begins properly, significant broadcast or print interviews with players will become few and far between.

There is no hard and fast rule on this. Some players genuinely have very little to say and less interest in saying it, which is fine. Some players prefer to just play and that’s perfectly fine too – Mayo’s Ciarán McDonald spent 12 long years with Mayo while remaining marginally more elusive than JD Salinger ever was.

Some guys spend high-profile, All-Ireland-winning careers remaining silent and suspicious of all media, retire in a blaze of glory and then instantly take up roles as columnists or broadcasters where they yap away happily like Joan Rivers on speed.

Grim dance

There are still managers out there who believe that engaging with media is a natural part of their remit and that allowing their players to make their own choice in that regard is the right way to go. And there are a lot of GAA players out there with the curiosity and willingness to speak their mind; tell their story.

In the summer of 2017, for instance, few players were under as much pressure as Joe Canning. Galway hadn’t won a hurling All-Ireland since 1988 and Canning, one of the most gifted individualists of any age, was expected to lead the push.

In May of that year, he sat down for an hour with The Irish Times and spoke about those expectations, family and more. In August, just before an All-Ireland semi-final, he gave an in-depth interview to the Irish Independent.

The sky didn’t collapse. Galway won the All-Ireland. Canning finished as Hurler of the Year. Whenever he finishes up, Canning will be in high demand in whatever media role might suit him. He’s curious and opinionated – in his interview with The Irish Times, he lamented the fact that so many contemporary players are afraid to simply speak their minds.

And he is so right.

A combination of fear and crash-course media training has led to the grim dance of say-nothingism that we have all heard a million times before – ‘we were written off’; ‘they’ll be waiting in the long grass’; ‘we’ll take nothing for granted’; sure the way training has gone now . . . Etcetera. Etcetera.

In those interviews, Joe Canning repeatedly said he hurls because he enjoys it. It’s an important point. There’s a thing about intercounty GAA that those who manage the teams need to remember. Why will people go and watch the national league games? To see some marvellous players: yes, absolutely.

But the main reason they go is because they believe in an idea – this simple, magic formula of a group of hurlers or footballers from the one county representing that place.

It’s only a matter of time before a GAA player shows up for a sponsored event to find that no media organisation is bothered covering it

That’s what the whole century-long miracle of the GAA’s thriving amateurism has been about. The stories – what the players experience and remember and what they think about what they are committing to – is a vital part of its oxygen.

The GAA is a fascinating and, in many ways, brilliant organisation but it is complacent to the point of contempt in its expectation of media coverage.

The silencing of its athletes continues apace. That’s fine. The games will get their coverage but those athletes from other sports who are free to talk about their sport and their experiences – women footballers, camogie, the many voices in athletics or swimming or basketball or golf who often have riveting stories to tell – will gradually fill the void.

It’s only a matter of time before a GAA player shows up for a sponsored event to find that no media organisation is bothered covering it. And then his manager won’t have to worry about telling him what not to say.

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