Seán Moran: Congress a crash course in GAA’s deficiencies

It took nearly 10 years to address player burnout and now it’s the club players’ turn to wait

The GAA’s annual congress was again a crash course in the association’s deficiencies when it comes to planned and constructive change. Yet, curiously, it wasn’t the worst such weekend in that burnout was finally addressed.

It was, of course, no special thanks to the protocols of congress that this happened. Reform in this vital area has in fact been delayed and held up by the same body for most of the past 10 years.

Change is too hard to come by under this system. Between the need for a weighted majority and the lack of specialist knowledge of the delegations – and, worse, their not infrequent tendency to know better than specialists – congress is too unwieldy to move quickly on the things that need to be changed.

Club fixtures were not allowed the extra space of a fortnight in September and the added certainty of curtailed intercounty replays but, if you had to choose, burnout has been the more pressing issue and anyway the motions passed will also benefit the club fixtures programme.

In fact, it was the official view in Croke Park that, from the club perspective, the motions on minor and under-20 football were the most important, as they will prevent the postponement of senior club matches on the grounds of minor and under-21 involvement at intercounty level.

Burnout has been a scandal within Gaelic games for years. It’s nearly a decade since the report of Dr Pat O’Neill’s committee investigating the issue was published. Part of their evidence was a horrific presentation by former Meath footballer Gerry McEntee, a medical consultant.

According to McEntee: “In the past 10 years, the number of referrals to medical sports specialists, referrals for surgical opinion and the number of operations for chronic groin injuries has increased dramatically. Referrals are almost exclusively male, typically in the 15-21 age group, and most commonly involve Gaelic footballers.”

GAA Director General Páraic Duffy asked McEntee before last weekend if the situation had improved: the reply was that it had gotten worse. Duffy actually pre-dated the official concern about burnout back to 2001. That's 15 years doing nothing or, worse, obstructing change.

O’Neill had in the interim suggested that the matter might only become pressing when the writs begin to fly.

Why is this given that GAA officialdom, whatever else can be said about them, hardly intend harm to young players?

It’s largely because the challenges of addressing these problems are frequently considered more bother than the problem is worth and no gatherings in the world can identify potential inconvenience for themselves as swiftly as a GAA congress.

Bad-mouthing

Even the motions that were passed on minor and under-20 had to be done so under the cover of night. It was a surprise to delegates that the burnout motions were taken on Friday night. This had one crucial consequence. There would be no sustained bad-mouthing of the proposals overnight in the bars of Mount Wolseley.

The debate had to be taken on its merits and it scraped the weighted majority of two-thirds but it got there.

By Saturday morning the mood for change had abated. The proposals to bring forward the All-Irelands and reduce replays were not supported by sufficient majorities although the freeing up of county panellists not involved on matchday to play for their clubs was accepted.

The weighted majority is obviously no assistance to change. Neither is the frivolous manner in which proposals are treated both inside and outside of congress.

The mark, which was accepted on Saturday, is an example. Firstly it wasn't adequately debated and its chief proponent Jarlath Burns has said he was surprised at how few spoke about the idea – even joking that he was glad to see from the silence that nearly everyone must be in favour.

When it was accepted, there was an eruption of public complaint about the idea. Where was the discussion on this over the past few weeks? If there was opposition to the mark it was fairly muted for something that had been published and in circulation for about a month.

Not alone that but the mark had been trialled in 2010 when the general reaction to it was that it didn’t have a huge impact on the game but rewarded catching the ball.

It hadn't been adopted at that year's congress, getting struck down before having a chance to be discussed in a strange cattle drive to push through as many motions on experimental rules as possible on the Friday night. The president Christy Cooney deemed on a show of hands that there was insufficient support for three motions supporting the idea – a view challenged by Jarlath Burns the following day but to no avail given that the matter had been decided.

In 2013 as part of the football review committee’s proposals, the mark was back being debated before congress. It received 65 per cent of the vote, just short.

Pay attention

In other words this has been on the agenda for a long time. Why are all the strong views on it being heard only now?

The answer is that for the most part people only pay attention to congress motions after the event.

It is, as Burns himself acknowledges, a small regulation designed to encourage the occasional contest for possession; he reckons that you could watch four matches without seeing it awarded – and no one’s forcing anyone to avail of it.

GAA reform is the ultimate war of attrition. Proposals have to keep being presented and argued until they finally click. Club players have again been thwarted but at least young footballers have been granted some clearing in the thicket of early-season fixtures.

But it's not a great way to guide vital policy concerns. smoran@irishtimes.com