John McEntee: Players have the potential to become great influencers

Modern day managers like Mickey Harte and Kieran McGeeney have a higher profile than players, but perhaps with the help of some media training the GAA can address this, thereby helping players wield more influence within the game and outside of it

SOME months ago I attended a meeting in one of the North’s major hospitals. As I exited the building with one eye scanning for my car and the other scanning emails on my mobile, I literally walked into a young man who was coincidentally mirroring my actions.

A quick apology lead to a faint recognition of who the other person was. The young man knew me, which is a clear indication he lived through the good years either side of 2002. It took me longer to identify who he was.

You see, when you meet another person on a hospital site the conversation tends to be on general topics such as weather, football, price of parking and so on; small talk.

Pointed questions are forbidden for fear of prying into one’s personal circumstances – the question of why they are there is the first place is always in the back of your mind and is the one thing you tend to skirt around.

During the journey to the office it dawned on me who I had met, and the embarrassment of this realisation weighed heavy on me for some time. I realised I played against this young man’s father and uncle and, worse still, I watched him playing for his school, club and county many times.

So why was he unrecognisable? I’m reminded of a time when I first met my wife’s uncle, John King. It was in The Trap bar, Keady. The place was full and the craic was mighty. As I was introduced to John he shook my hand and in his own witty way said: “Ah, I wouldn’t recognise you with your clothes on, son.” What John was referring to was that he could instantly recognise me on the football pitch by my walk or my kicking style but had no real idea of what my face looked like.

Back then in a pre-Facebook or Instagram world there were minimal attempts to curb media contact. Managers sent the usual faces out to meet the waiting press. Players were instructed to give bland responses and to keep the interview short.

When journalists sprinkled their magic on these interviews, these few crumbs of information was enough to generate interest in players and as a result most inter-county players became household names and generally recognisable – well to the younger folk at least.

Since then, the media world has magnified a thousand times over and in response the GAA player, like a frightened tortoise, has withdrawn into their shell.

It is no surprise really. What soccer does in England tends to be replicated by other sports on this island. Over there, clubs and player representatives put up barriers with the media. Clubs will permit one player, usually a goalscorer or captain, to speak to the media for around 30 seconds but the majority of interviews are conducted by the manager.

Many clubs prohibit social media postings in the 24 hours before or after games. Luckily for soccer players, the FA has a huge marketing department and the game has worldwide appeal and alternative instant means of getting to know players are available such as the Match Attax trading cards.

They are also excellent at engaging with their communities such as the way in which many players engage with the National Literacy Trust to promote literacy within disadvantaged areas.

Ireland is too small a country and GAA too parochial for players to avoid the media.

The best known people in the GAA are the managers. There is something wrong about that. Wouldn’t it be great if the GAA introduced a policy which insisted on players talking with the media, attending regular photoshoots, creating biographies?

More than ever, we do not know our inter-county players. We do not know if they have strong opinions or if their persona can be used to advance good causes. Becoming socially active after one’s playing days is too late in many respects as the sphere of influence is significantly lessened for most; the opportunity can be missed.

Examples of influencing for the good can be seen in visits by players to children’s wards or cancer units. They are to be commended, if even a little staged, but they form a very small part of what these guys and girls could be doing if they were to embrace the media.

Imagine the profile GAA players would have if they adopted the approach taken by American sports such as NBA basketball and NFL American football. Their players must speak to the press on a regular basis.

Imagine the opportunities they could take advantage of, and the influence for good they could bring to society.

Imagine if each player was as instantly recognisable as Dean Rock or Lee Keegan. All it might take is a simple policy change at the top of the GAA and some redirection of funds towards media training for every inter-county player.

Players would embrace such opportunities as many doors will open for them as a result of this small change and they can begin to fulfil their potential as social influencers for good.

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