GAA’s code of silence is doing football and hurling no favours

Letting media talk to only one main player ahead of All-Ireland final is embarrassing

2015 footballer of the year Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

2015 footballer of the year Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

I ran into Jack McCaffrey at Electric Picnic. It was just inside the Heineken Sound Atlas stage, or somewhere around there, and I said a quick hello, asked how his dad was, and that was about it.

Ryan Skelton’s Together Disco crew were starting up in the Jerry Fish Electric Sideshow and there was no time to lose. Sorry, Jack, catch you later.

It took a few days before I realised that that was probably as close anyone has got to a one-on-one interview with a Dublin footballer this summer. Even if McCaffrey, the 2015 footballer of the year, isn’t actually involved with Dublin at the moment, it still felt like some strange breach of protocol to simply say hello.

Because it seems no one is let anywhere near a Dublin footballer these days, at least not if they are on their own or without someone looking over their shoulder. That’s exactly how it felt at Dublin’s All-Ireland football final media event at Parnell Park on Tuesday afternoon, when the entire representation of the Fourth Estate rolled across the city ahead of arguably the most anticipated sporting event of the summer.

It started on time and there was a nice spread of gourmet sandwiches. Then we gathered around a small table where we were presented with one member of Dublin’s starting XV: defender Philly McMahon.

McMahon is an okay talker (we know that because he was presented last year as well) but to see one player fielding the entire array of questions concerning Dublin’s final countdown seemed a little unfair: in the end, it was probably just as embarrassing for him as it was for us.

Jim Gavin did his bit as well, and Jonny Cooper was there too, although he was strictly reserved for the Sunday newspapers. Oh yeah, and then one Dublin substitute was made available, Darren Daly.

Ciarán Kilkenny on his incredible fitness? Dean Rock on nailing his place-kicking? Kevin McManamon on finding that starting place? Brian Fenton on the second- season syndrome? Cian O’Sullivan on lording centre back? Team captain Stephen Cluxton on anything at all? Dream on.

None of this is written out of spite or in anger but merely for comparison purposes. Mayo’s All-Ireland final media event, as I was reliably informed by our chief sports writer Keith Duggan, ran along similar lines, the manager saying his bit, before two players – defender Donal Vaughan and substitute Stephen Coen – were presented for us so-called dailies. And I could tell Keith was a bit embarrassed about that too, because he has to write the proper stuff.

This is not helped by the fact we are both not long back from the Olympics in Rio, which provided the access to all athletes normally reserved for dreams.

Indeed on the eve of the Games, Keith went along to a media event with the USA men’s basketball team: he’s no fan with a typewriter, but he came out of there as if he was still dreaming. For more than 40 minutes, players such as Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Harrison Barnes, took up lone seats around a huge auditorium and happily spoke to whoever came their way, providing the sort of player access which would instantly turn any intercounty GAA manager pale.

Of course, these are all highly paid professionals (coach Mike Krzyzewski also earns $10 million a year as head coach at Duke University), and the only real storyline was how on Earth they could leave Rio without winning the gold medal.

The point is that USA basketball is aware of the global explosion of the sport’s popularity through TV rights, etc, and the players themselves are equally conscious of their role in the marketing of all that.

Indeed, the Olympic TV rights are sold on that basis, which is why I got continuous and instant access to the likes of Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Caster Semenya after every one of their races, and there were lots of more interesting storylines going on around them.

Where might Michael Conlan’s thoughts have gone if there hadn’t been instant access to them?

As an amateur organisation, the GAA may feel a justifiable aversion to any such professional comparisons, even if players and managers are constantly making that comparison for themselves – and rightly so, given the eating and drinking and sleeping of football and hurling. The truth is none of the performances in Croke Park in recent weeks would have felt out of place inside the Olympic Stadium.

Of course, most of them also have families and jobs to return home to, but there is still the sense the GAA might be missing a trick here. There is no reason why it couldn’t “reimburse” players for a proper All-Ireland media event in Croke Park, just as it does for every other commercial or corporate activity during the year. That way, player access would reach a level in keeping with the event’s magnitude. Dublin may not be the All Blacks and this may not be the Super Bowl or AFL Grand Final, but why not treat it that way?

It shouldn’t just be before big games either: after last Sunday’s hurling final, which apparently left some grown men with tears running down their faces, we were presented with one player from champions Tipperary (Séamus Callanan) and none from Kilkenny. (There was also that bloody curse from John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, live on TV straight afterwards, only he’s hardly to blame for that, given he had been gagged for the entire year.)

Some people probably think newspaper print is past its sell-by date anyway, that they don’t even wrap up fish and chips in it any more. Or maybe, as GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, put it this week, “there is no automatic right for everybody to see every game”, and that the GAA’s own media rights intend to keep it that way.

That actually meant more than half the games involving Mayo this summer could only be seen by people who’ve paid up in full for Sky Sports, and God knows how the players must feel about that.

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