Organisation must start singing from the same hymn sheet


On Gaelic Games:Each year the GAA director general produces his annual report. It’s a red-letter for the media because it puts a vast amount of material into the public domain. Some years the Geiger counter goes crazy when the report is handed over and in others, as happened this week, the emissions are considered mostly safe.

That is, however, superficial judgment on a document, which hits nearly 20,000 words, because beyond the headline topics and trenchant opinions there runs through Páraic Duffy’s report a sense of frustration at the executive limitations that come with full-time stewardship of an overwhelmingly voluntary organisation.

For some time there have been concerns that there has developed a disconnection between grassroots membership and the national administration in Croke Park, including a belief that an over-staffed bureaucracy in Dublin spends its time thinking up new regulatory burdens for ordinary clubs and members.

The problem has been seen as one of communication and since Duffy succeeded Liam Mulvihill, he has prioritised the overhaul of the relevant systems to explain policy and seek feedback.

But sometimes it cuts the other way. Full-time administrators are clearly in a better position to identify problems and commission and analyse evidence-based research with a view to advancing solutions.

Consultation is important because of the nature of an organisation, which already moves slowly in terms of its institutional decision making and may not move at all if it takes against something. Yet the problems can run deeper than that: it’s not unusual for decisions taken at one meeting to be overturned as soon as people wake up to the consequences.

Such inattention is probably inevitable among decision makers, who are involved on a voluntary basis with the limited engagement that can sometimes entail.

Then, as with the recent restriction on sideline personnel, an issue can become even more protracted. Here we saw a problem identified (indiscipline on the sidelines, facilitated and exacerbated by the numbers present), a solution proposed (limit those numbers), solution accepted (by Central Council at the end of last year), solution challenged and after further discussion decisively accepted a second time (Central Council meeting in January) and yet the sniping and complaining continues, along with the fatuous accusation that the process has been in some way dictatorial.

There have been other recent examples of this difficulty in attempting to secure acceptance for duly adopted policy and rules. The original close season regulations brought in five years ago had more coach-and-fours driven through them than an 18th-century highway despite counties having voted for their introduction.

This dysfunction – the tension between good practice and its implementation – and its consequences appear in this week’s annual report in one of the most important contexts, the efforts to increase public interest in the games.

Writing about the various advertising and marketing initiatives undertaken last year to promote the championships, he notes that not all units appreciated the importance of the project.

“While some counties were enthusiastic and cooperative, others were complacent and appear to believe that it is not necessary to promote our games. Such complacency is no longer acceptable: it is important that we all understand the changed context in which we are trying to attract people to our matches.”

In a related area Duffy argues the case for greater co-operation with media in securing the promotional benefits of valuable match coverage. There can be crossed wires on this issue: media doesn’t cover Gaelic games as a favour to the GAA; it does so because the public are interested.

Nonetheless coverage of a sport will suffer, qualitatively as well as quantatively, if media can’t get access to the principals, be they players or managers – a situation acknowledged by Duffy in his report. “One of the most frustrating problems we encounter,” he writes, “is the media ‘ban’ that some counties impose on players prior to major games; this refusal to let players speak to journalists greatly limits, and undermines, the efforts we make to market our games. Where is the proven correlation between avoiding the media and winning matches?

“If we want these media to cover our games as we would like, we need to make our material available in a similar manner. Access to players is especially important. I realise that our players are amateurs, that most of them have jobs and that much of their time is already given over to their participation in our games.

“Clearly, they cannot be expected to be available to journalists on a daily basis – there has to be a balanced approach to this issue. Some players will not wish to engage with the media at all, and their wishes must be respected, but many of our players are extremely articulate, enjoy the media interaction and can benefit in various ways from the public profile generated by exposure in the media.”

This is not a new concern. Ten years ago Duffy’s predecessor Liam Mulvihill had this to say in his 2003 annual report:  “If players do not wish to be interviewed, this is their right . . . While respecting the right of team managers and players I should again reiterate that there is a minimum level of access and co-operation that can and should be afforded to media while ensuring that these rights are indeed preserved.”

The relevant point here is that identifying a problem and remedying it are – without acceptance by those involved – two different things. It also demonstrates one of the GAA’s core difficulties: applying professional solutions to amateurs.

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