The rhetoric continues, though the argument is over. The Gaelic Athletic Association is no longer an amateur organisation: not in the sense described in the official guide or repeated in a million vain boasts through the generations. By a long process of compromise, cunning and brazen disregard for the rules, the GAA has arrived at a kind of amateurism shandy.
There is an element of the lapsed Catholic about the association’s modern relationship with one of its pillar principles: would still like a church wedding and their children to be baptised, would still like a plot in the local church graveyard, might still indicate “Catholic” on the census form, even though nobody is looking. But don’t want to go to Mass, or pray — except in emergencies.
In his smart and thoughtful report to Congress, published last Thursday, GAA director general Tom Ryan devotes a page to various observations under the general heading of “Ethos”. It is hard to think of another sports organisation that invests so much of its self-worth in this concept: in the GAA the amateur ethos, the volunteer ethos and the community ethos are the holy trinity of defining characteristics.
The GAA’s ethos was changed by the actions and attitudes of GAA people and moulded into something else, like it or not
More than that, GAA people regard them as distinguishing traits, elevating them above other sports who are perceived to care less about the community and have a venal relationship with money. Elements of that are still true.
In his report, Ryan writes that “the single most important thing about the GAA is the ethos that underpins it”. If that is the case, who shapes the ethos? It is a monolithic set of values, handed down, or is it something organic? Is it open to a change of mind, or heart?
In these conversations, volunteerism and amateurism are often conflated. No different from any other grassroots sports organisation, the GAA depends on volunteerism. In other sports it is not celebrated to the same degree, for whatever reasons, but rugby depends on volunteerism too, just like schoolboy soccer, hockey, cricket — you name it.
The step change in the GAA is that volunteers all over the island have taken a view about what they’re prepared to pay for: they’re prepared to buy success, or at least pay money that puts them in the bidding. There have been no mass resignations from clubs over managers being paid and there is no evidence of supporters deserting their county team because the manager is pocketing a small fortune and the “ethos” of the association has been vandalised.
“Everything we do is inspired by a sense of community spirit, volunteerism and participation,” writes Ryan. “So I don’t really wish to appear self-righteous here and I don’t want to deliver a sermon on all that is wrong. But assembling all the shortcomings in one place might focus the mind. The inevitable conclusion is that those values are at risk of erosion. In 2024, our ethos also represents the biggest risk that we face.”
Erosion, by definition, is a gradual process. This challenge has not landed suddenly on the GAA. In 2002, under the leadership of former president Peter Quinn, the association produced an exhaustive strategic review that stretched to 264 pages. In the chapter on amateur status, the committee concluded that “the expectations of players are increasing”.
Over the last 20 years, the expectations of players have gone through the roof. Meeting those expectations has catalysed a change in the ethos of the association. Not in writing, or by referendum, but by force of action. The €40 million spent on intercounty teams last year may be unsustainable and it may be a reckless drain on the coffers of county boards, but the resourcing of intercounty teams became an arms race and nobody wanted to be the first to blink.
From week to week, supporters of intercounty teams, many of them steeped in the GAA and raised in its ethos, don’t think about the outrageous spending: they want their team to win.
In the same paragraph, the review committee wrote that “unlike other sports, Gaelic games are not commodities”. What has been commodified, however, are all the services that constitute best practice now and underpin high performance. Players, not just at intercounty level, but at elite club level, and other aspirational levels close to the elite, don’t care what these services cost and who pays for it: the modern GAA player wants to train like an elite athlete and be part of an environment that relentlessly supports that aim.
Anybody involved in a team at any level now would be mortified to be described as amateurish. Is it against the age-old ethos of the GAA to be so cavalier about these things? Yes, of course. Does the association’s ethos make anybody think twice about doing what it takes to make the team competitive? At whatever cost? The answer is not just in the headline numbers but in the day-to-day choices of GAA people on the ground.
Over the last 20 years, the expectations of players have gone through the roof. Meeting those expectations has catalysed a change in the ethos of the association
There is a different ethos now. The biggest change in the GAA since the turn of the century is the commodification of winning. That is not a barrier to volunteerism or community engagement. The 2002 strategic report flagged “societal changes” that had started to undercut volunteerism and that trend has not been reversed over the last 20 years.
But there are still enough volunteers, and they do it for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the coach, and their support staff, and how much that might cost. Volunteering brings a particular kind of gratification that money cannot buy.
In his report last week, Ryan wrote that “your time” is more valuable to the association than “any notes from your wallet.” That remains true. Doing it out of a sense of duty or emotional attachment generates a feeling that is alien to money. At the heart of the association, that formula is resilient still.
But the ethos of the GAA has changed, not because a vote was taken, or the official guide was rewritten, or as the outcome of a frank, public debate: it was changed by the actions and attitudes of GAA people and moulded into something else, like it or not.
There is a balance to be struck between idealism and realism. If the association wants to protect elements of its age-old ethos, it must legislate for what has changed. Pining for what has been lost won’t bring it back. It’s gone.