Twenty four years ago, we were also getting ready for a special congress. It arrived on November 1st and was the first such event in 12 years. It became the first full-scale deliberation by the GAA on what was and still remains a ‘core value’: amateurism in Gaelic games.
In just over two weeks, this year’s special congress will consider the future of the football championship, which sounds an entirely different bag of arguments but there is a strong connection between the intercounty game and amateur status.
Arguably next year’s calendar will be the most radical departure in Gaelic games this century and that’s nothing to do with whatever championship format emerges, as it won’t kick in until 2023 and is likely, anyway, to be subject to a trial period.
Next year, all going to plan in the post-pandemic world, we’ll be finished with All-Irelands in mid-July (hurling) and the end of the month (football). When the now defunct Club Players’ Association argued for such a timetable just four years ago, it was declared a fantasy but Covid taught us otherwise.
The concept of amateurism has also changed in the past 24 years. It's now simply a refusal to countenance pay for play
The report of the 1997 ‘Amateur Status sub-committee’ makes quaint reading now but it was a serious attempt to get to grips with an issue that has prompted almost as much agonising in the years since as club fixtures.
It was the first engagement with how players might legitimately earn income from endorsements and media work and featured safeguards such as the individual receiving just 50 per cent of the fee from endorsements (Cork proposed just 40 per cent with 10 per cent going to the player’s club), 30 per cent to the team panel and 10 per cent to both a hardship fund and the county board.
There was much talk of recognising the collective and how a full forward shouldn’t be more important than a corner back – the full forward’s riposte that it wasn’t the corner back driving down rain-swept roads to open a convenience store would eventually lead to the binning of the levy.
Yet, according to sub-committee chair, former president Peter Quinn, the most significant aspect of the report was the proposal to centralise sponsorship from sports equipment manufacturers so that big counties wouldn't benefit disproportionately from their enhanced ability to attract commercial deals.
By the sub-committee’s reckoning, only six or seven counties would be capable of negotiating a deal with manufacturers and that to cut in smaller counties, a national contract would be necessary.
Of course it never happened.
The concept of amateurism has also changed in the past 24 years. It’s now simply a refusal to countenance pay for play. There have been various test situations arising, the most interesting of which was Colm Cooper’s testimonial in 2017.
Rule 1.10 states: “A player, team, official or member shall not accept payment in cash or in kind in conjunction with the playing of Gaelic games.”
GAA activities have become increasingly onerous for players, managers and administrators. This hasn't escaped Croke Park's attention
This rule was scrutinised when the GAA sought legal opinion but the rule has remained unaltered in the meantime despite the advice that it had become if not meaningless, then certainly porous and of no application to testimonials.
Amateurism has also come under scrutiny from the other side of the equation – the extent to which Gaelic games involvement at the top level has placed strain on the notion of recreational activity.
Dr Elish Kelly’s watershed 2018 ESRI report ‘Playing Senior Inter-County Games: Experiences, Realities and Consequences’ laid bare the life of intercounty players and the outsized demands placed on them.
At the time there was shock in Croke Park at the various extremes unveiled in the report – the headline finding was that players were dedicating 31 hours a week to their involvement – but scepticism amongst the rest of us that anything would be done to address the issue.
If intercounty activity is a runaway train, it’s flattened a few territories. Anecdotal evidence is that counties are finding it increasingly difficult to find people who want to be involved in management. Someone involved in the recruitment process said privately that increasingly, the best candidates for any position – manager, coach or selector – aren’t interested because of the demands on time and career.
Kerry completed the appointment of Jack O’Connor this week but it was a bruising, public process and the job now comes with terrifying levels of expectation that he win the All-Ireland in his first year.
Mayo chair Liam Moffatt unexpectedly announced that he was stepping down after just two years in charge of the county. Even for someone with a reputation for being willing to pile his plate high with voluntary commitments, the position became too much in light of "business and personal reasons".
GAA activities have become increasingly onerous for players, managers and administrators. This hasn’t escaped Croke Park’s attention.
In answer to a direct question as to whether those behind the new intercounty calendar had it at the back of their minds to reverse recent trends by reducing pressures on amateur status, Feargal McGill – the GAA’s director of games administration – replied: “It’s been at the front of our minds I would say! Alongside a proper closed season – it’s now likely that collective training will only be allowed from December 15th onwards– it means the intensive intercounty ‘training’ season will run from mid-December to mid-June for most counties, six months, or seven for All-Ireland semi-finalists and finalists.
“Even in recent years that would have been mid-November to mid-July for most, eight months or nine months for the more successful. So yes, in terms of easing all the pressures on players highlighted in the ESRI report, it should go a long way.
“There are obviously associated benefits in terms of costs for county boards too: a six-month expense window versus an eight- or nine-month one is hugely significant and much more manageable.”
Experience suggests that getting this particular genie back in the bottle won’t be easy but if successful, this will be the first rolling back of the tide running against amateurism.