Protecting players' interests an ongoing assignment


Interview with Dessie FarrellThe reduction in funding for the player grant scheme a major concern

Now, more then ever, the Gaelic Players Association must make a difference. There is increasing evidence of racism at club level, while the 2,200- strong players body have seen their government grants eroded on a yearly basis.

It is still up in the air what the players will receive for 2012.

A drop on the 2011 figure is expected, with a further decrease next year, when the money is finally funnelled from Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Michael Ring to the Sports Council coffers and then dripped into the new GPA offices in Northwood, Dublin 9.

The organisation’s major success story to date was agreeing a figure of €2,500 for any player involved in the 2007 All-Ireland final (with a sliding scale down to €500). Five years on, that figure is expected to fall below €750 (with a sliding scale below €350).

Dessie Farrell, GPA chief executive, recently discussed this constant battle and other challenges facing his organisation with The Irish Times.

Gavin Cummiskey: Wexford’s Lee Chin and Armagh’s Aaron Cunningham have shone a spotlight on racism in Gaelic games, what role can the GPA play here?

Dessie Farrell: We’ve a long standing relationship with “Show Racism The Red Card”, which is a very active organisation in a couple of different countries. Their remit is to change attitudes using sport as the format to do that.

It seems a more significant issue in the last 12 months. Obviously, it has been more prevalent in other sports and countries.

GC: Maybe that influenced your members who have been affected to speak up?

DF: There is a culture change. Years ago, when I started playing county football [in 1990], a box in the jaw was the medicine that was dished out but with the severe disciplinary stance that has been taken, by and large, at county level, that doesn’t happen any more.

Over the last 10 years the new ammunition has been sledging or verbal abuse, which is unfortunate but that’s how the game evolves.

It has evolved in many different ways in terms of sports science and tactics and trying to get an upper hand, to get inside an opponent’s head, rather than physical intimidation.

In the same way we tackled the issue of physical violence on the pitch, we need to tackle verbal abuse and particularly incidents of racism. We would be advocating zero tolerance.

GC: There’s heavier bans in soccer than GAA for racial abuse.

DF: To be fair to the GAA and Liam O’Neill, they are keen to address this in a meaningful way. Can we enshrine it in rule is the question. We would be advocating we do that.

The key to it is education and ensuring that the culture doesn’t permeate . . .

GC: The fact that men like Lee Chin and Aaron Cunningham are reporting it is a culture change in itself?

DF: Absolutely. I think individuals who do report it need to be complimented. A lot of this in about leadership. From the highest levels of the organisation, in terms of the penalties imposed, but also the players themselves or coaches or parents or whoever is involved to have the courage to report this and see out that process. Because it is a headache too . . . you have to put forward your case, there is an investigation. It doesn’t come without its challenges. And then just leadership in the general sense, if you see it happening to say: ‘Okay, I haven’t been affected but this is unacceptable’.

GC: Let’s move on to the Government’s player grant scheme. Do you expect the five per cent decrease in funding for the Sports Council, after the recent budget, to reflect the drop in grant money?

DF: We are not sure as we have not yet got 2012’s allocation. It’s going to be paid but we are in talks with the Minister (Michael Ring), the Department and Sports Council and hope to have an idea of funding next week.

What happens for the future? Unfortunately there seems to be a hoo-haa about it every year. We’ve never got it bedded down in a particular budget, be it the Sports Council’s or Department of Sport. It would be great to get it ring -fenced in some shape or form. We’ve discussed this with the Minister and he sees merit in that.

GC: This was the GPA’s great crusade for so long and while you won what seemed at the time anyway to be the decisive battle, does it not feel like you have since lost the war?

DF: It’s reduced from €3.5 million to just under €1 million last year.

GC: Which will go down again?

DF: It could. It’s been difficult but, ultimately, there have been a number of detractors of this scheme in influential positions. That hasn’t helped our cause.

GC: Do you mean government or within the GAA?

DF: Government. It wasn’t the most loved scheme in the world when it was introduced because there was a consensus at the time that it was the GAA’s responsibility to look after its players. That was never actually the case because the reason we got it across the line in the first instance still applies today; this is about a principle.

The issue is parity of esteem.

Professional athletes are endorsed by the government through very lucrative tax breaks.

Carding system

The high performance amateurs in other codes are funded through the carding system through the Sports Council.

And then there was this body of players in the middle who made a very significant contribution to the social and cultural fabric of this country. And yet, that wasn’t recognised in any shape or form. We got it across the line on that basis. Why should we be discriminated against? . . . . We won’t be accepting further cuts to the funding above and beyond what the Sports Council or other sports organisations are receiving.

GC: So if they get a five percent cut, you won’t accept a seven per cent cut?

DF: Yeah, or 10 per cent, like what happened previously when there was a significant reduction.

GC: What about the GAA making up the difference?

DF: No. And we are not going to go back to that.

GC: So, who must you convince?

DF: It’s the Sports Council, the Department officials and Minister Ring. To be fair to the Sports Council, we spoke to Kieran Mulvey and John Treacy very recently, and they understand where we are coming from.

There is an understanding now of the role Gaelic players can actually play in society in terms of promoting key social messages and initiatives. So, why would you want to discommode a constituency who can make a very positive impact on social issues? It doesn’t make sense.

Michael Ring is one of the first ministers with whom we have really engaged and sees the value in all this. He asked us to support The Gathering and there are other initiatives we will support in the future.

GC: We claim to be a massive sporting nation, but it has never been reflected in government funding and your members are the best example of this?

DF: When you strip it all away, we like to talk about sport, we like to watch sport but in terms of providing the resources and the funding we are not doing enough.

At our AGM in November we passed a motion to establish a National Athletes Alliance, which would provide a forum for the GPA, FAI, IRFU, Irupa and various different athletes bodies to come together and exchange ideas. This happens in Europe.

Key issue

The key issue is trying to elevate the status of sport in this country. We claim to be a sports-mad nation but the reality is very different.

A concrete example of where we think the exchange should take place is within the education system itself. Across the Border in the Six Counties you can study PE as an A level subject yet in the Republic you can’t for Leaving Cert.

Why are all our talented 17 and 18-year-olds studying for their Leaving Cert but playing minor football and hurling for their county or rugby or athletics on their own time? Yet you can study music or art to the benefit of getting points on your CAO form and entry into third level education.

It’s regrettable that the government don’t see the value of investing in sport. All they are doing is building more problems further down the line in terms of the obesity, the cost of health bill and social justice bill.

Why is it you are lucky if your child gets a half hour of PE a week and the recommendation from the Department of Health is 60 minutes per day? A lot of this stuff isn’t stacking up in this country.

GC: Talk about your fundraising drive across the Atlantic, what branch of the Irish American community are you targeting?

DF: We just believe there is a great opportunity out there – first generation Irish who have been very successful. Philanthropy, they do it very well in the States and they have always supported different issues and institutions in Ireland but sport has never really got a look in. We felt there may be a niche there for us. We have approached Irish American business leaders to create a network of supporters for our programmes.

GC: Who?

DF: The last event we ran we had Declan Kelly as dinner chair. Declan is from Tipperary and has had a phenomenally successful career, he started out as a journalist and he’s now CEO of a global company called Teneo. Don Keough, who is a corporate icon in the US, he is a former president of Coca-Cola, and his roots are in Wexford.

Exhibition game

There are others who sit on our advisory board New York, like Niall O’Dowd.

We’ve also got an ongoing relationship with Dermot Hogan, originally from St Vincent’s GAA club in Marino.

We’re set up in New York and are now looking at playing an exhibition game in Dallas, maybe even in the Cotton Bowl.

GC: What do you say to a member who approaches the GPA for advice about signing an AFL contract?

DF: We had the recent incident with Ciarán Kilkenny. I had coached him on the Dublin minors. With my Dublin hat on I was very sad to see him go but as a personal friend of Ciarán’s I was delighted for him. . . If he comes back, he comes back a better player. Personally, I don’t think he’ll come back. He’s so gifted.

GC: Finally, the GAA and GPA have been sharing the same washing machine for some time now so we don’t see the dirty laundry anymore.

DF: The relationship is very good. We don’t always agree on things but at least there is a mechanism there to deal with issues as they arise.

That’s not to say there won’t be a public spat in due course, it could happen, but the mega-phone diplomacy is not required anymore.

GC: You might have to dust off the mega-phone if the player grants continue to be eroded?

DF: Our issue won’t be with the GAA. But as long as other athletes are supported by the Government of the day I think it is important that we are.

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