It's time for the great leap forward, boys

 

LOCKER ROOM:Surely official recognition of the GPA would remove in one stroke the adversarial nature of the relationship between it and the GAA, writes TOM HUMPHRIES

THE GPA’S latest wildcat action will be a minor irritant to the GAA and its commercial partners. Several media outlets will be spared the expense of the cutglass vase with which the man of the match is traditionally conferred and we’ll be deprived of a few banal quotes but the fact the players have inflicted a scratch rather than a laceration to the GAA should be no reason for complacency.

Annoying as the GPA have been and can be, three things are clear at this stage. They ain’t going away. They are evolving and that process has brought them to a more nuanced view of the GAA and their relationship with it. And third, the more dismissive Croke Park is of the players’ association, the easier it is to recruit members. The breadth of participation in next week’s actions is perhaps more surprising than the action itself.

As the GPA has outgrown its early need to use statements of mass destruction in its desire to cause shock and awe so the pared down version of its message has attained a greater clarity and reasonableness. It’s not about professionalism anymore, if it ever truly was. It is about looking after players and tackling serious issues which won’t go away, like image rights etc.

And in this regard the GAA’s dismissive approach seems hard to understand. To paraphrase Mick McCarthy, the sage of Barnsley: surely it would be better for the GAA to have the GPA within the tent peeing out than to keep them outside the tent peeing in. Surely official recognition would remove in one stroke the adversarial nature of the relationship between the two bodies and show the broader membership that here are two sets of good GAA men working toward common cause.

Páraic Duffy, having come from a welfare background and having as sharp a political brain as his predecessor, surely sees this. The challenge for the GAA is to remove the responsibility for holding hands and jumping with the GPA away from the largesse of elected presidents, whose role in policy matters should be minimal anyway (and should never really be more complicated than making a choice between chicken or beef at club and county dinners) and into the hands of the association’s chief executive.

Somewhere long ago in the early gate-crashing, naughty boy days of the GPA the powers-that-be in Croke Park seemed to form the view that the easiest course would be to let the nascent players body burn itself out in then flames of its early unpopularity. Hasn’t happened. And is unlikely to happen now. The GPA has grown comfortable in its own skin and players generally realise the importance of representation and welfare issues.

The GAA know by now the GPA isn’t going to go away. One suspects too that in Croke Park there is a realisation that no matter how many curveballs various presidents toss at the GPA for a round of inexpensive applause the day is coming when there will be official recognition and the GPA will operate out of offices in Croke Park rather than up the road.

In the meantime one suspects it comes down to haggling: 5 per cent or €2 million is a reasonable figure for player welfare issues but the GAA having talked itself into a corner will find it difficult to sell the idea to a membership who have been sold the notion for 10 years that the exterminators are coming soon to remove the GPA from the premises.

The GAA will also make the argument that player welfare is a more universal concern and involves the entire playing membership. It is a convenient but fallacious argument. There are two distinct strands to GAA-playing life. There is the strand whom we pay to watch, sell TV deals on the back of and insist are drug tested . And there are the rest. That we would have a uniform code of welfare regulations for each strand seems logical and desirable.

And the price tag for bringing the GPA inside the tent and removing the thorn from the GAA’s paw? Money is going to have to be spent on player welfare anyway. Even the most passionately anti-pay for play cohort within the association will have to recognise elite players need to be looked after fairly and efficiently and the association faces massive challenges from other sports and will have to up its game, as it were, to remain competitive.

For all the ochón ’s ochón ó which attends the loss of a few players every year to the charms of Aussie Rules it is the excellence with which rugby markets itself and looks after its players which represents the greater threat.

And that is why €2 million is a bargain basement price. While the GPA remains outside the fence and in opposition, as it were, to the GAA the association will never be fully is a position to properly exploit the profile and popularity of its players.

The old argument over the soft drinks is a classic example. The GAA, or units thereof, may feel like doing deals with energy drinks companies but players having no contract with the GAA or those units are entitled to carry or drink whatever brand they like when in action. So it goes with the things like the video game fiasco or the unexploited possibilities of personalised replica jerseys and merchandising.

The GAA have as yet hardly ascertained the full possibilities of that commercial realm and will never be in a position to while they push the GPA away. Rather than look at the price tag for embracing the GPA as something prohibitive and distasteful there needs to be a recognition that there is an opportunity here to end the periodic annoyances and embarrassments which the GPA is capable of inflicting, to do the right thing and look after players in a way that is proactive and progressive and to cement the partnership with the GAA by coming up with a strategy which, to put things bluntly, exploits the popularity and image of popular players but distributes the wealth from that exploitation in a way which is sensible and fair.

If not what will happen? Players will strike deals piecemeal around the place, the GAA will periodically face embarrassments when sitting down with its sponsors and will be found running around putting out fires once or twice a year.

The past is the past. It’s time for the great leap forward, boys.