GAA Football

Kicking Out: Playing inter-county GAA is a completely irrational pursuit

Attendees, from left, Elish Kelly, Senior Research Officer, ESRI, Alan Barrett, Director of the ESRI, Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael John Horan and Seamus Hickey, CEO of the GPA, during the launch of the ESRI Report into Playing Senior inter-county Gaelic Games at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Irrational
Not rational or reasonable

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WHEN the demands of modern inter-county football and hurling are placed on the table, the counter-argument usually revolves around Mick O’Dwyer’s madness in the mid-70s.

Kerry took Sam Maguire back off Dublin in ’75 and legend has attributed that success to the fact that they trained on 27 consecutive nights that year.

In their youth, even those Kerry players initially found they couldn’t sustain it.

“Our fellas got a little bit lost. The Rose of Tralee was in full swing and I think they were dabbling in some of the niceties,” smiled the mischievous O’Dwyer in the RTÉ documentary ‘Micko’, which documented his life in football.

Just because it was 1975 didn’t make their regime any more rational.

Madness only stops looking like madness when you win.

Last week, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) released a 296-page report on a study they’d undertaken on behalf of the GAA and GPA into the impact that playing inter-county football and hurling has on young men.

It is sobering reading.

Mostly what it outlines is how playing Gaelic football or hurling at inter-county level has become a completely irrational pursuit.

In a player’s own mind, he’ll justify it all.

Despite all the evidence they presented to the ESRI study themselves about feeling exhausted, having no family time, no time for anything outside football, feeling under constant pressure from all forms of media and being disconnected from their clubs, some 85 per cent of the respondents said they were glad they chose to play inter-county GAA.

That statistic presents a picture of players rationalising the irrational.

In one of the four workshops held as part of the study, players spoke about feeling as though playing inter-county was a 24-hour a day commitment.

They spoke about the actual physical time spent on their commitments and how some evenings it would run from 5pm until 1am. But, partly because social media’s impact has made the walls feel closer, it’s become an all-consuming part of their lives.

And that is not a healthy situation.

In an interview with The Irish News in 2016, former Cavan goalkeeper Alan O’Mara spoke about how he left the Cavan panel a few weeks before the championship two years previous because of the absence of enough “central pillars” in his life.

O’Mara, who has written a book about his battle with depression, said that he realised that football had come not only to dominate his life, but to dictate his entire mood.

“I felt at that moment that football was an all-consuming, all-dominating thing for me. When football was going well, I was alright, and when it wasn’t, I wasn’t ok as an individual.

“I stepped away and more or less promised myself that I wasn’t going to go back until I’d redressed that balance.”

The study suggests that balance is similarly lacking from the lives of many of the young men currently involved in inter-county football and hurling panels.

Many are sacrificing their professional careers to the point of limiting their chances of progression because of the time commitments of playing football, or turning down job opportunities that would impact on their ability to play for their county.

The biggest downside for players was how playing negatively affected the amount of time they had to spend with their family and friends.

The missed weddings and stag dos and christenings are one thing, but players are stalling relationships, delaying having children and turning away work in order to chase down football or hurling’s empty promises.

Because no matter how the mistress that is the game pretends to fulfil those desires with an odd big win, even a medal here or there, the question now hangs over it all whether it’s justifiable to continue with things as they are.

It’s one thing to talk about competition structures and Dublin’s money and other such small fish.

But when the playing population are scoring well beneath the national average in terms of mental health, and they freely admit that they are feeling the demands of committing to the game in so many ways, then you have to question why we’re allowing them to do it.

That’s the real question. It’s not why they’re doing it themselves, because so many people will always be irrational in the pursuit of excellence. We’re wired to be competitive, and that spirit needs an outlet. The GAA offers it.

It cannot, however, continue to promote measures which have become increasingly invasive. The inter-county game, in effect, plays on the hopes and dreams of young men.

The physical advantages have become overstated. Most inter-county players are in superb condition now, but that could equally be achieved through other forms of training, minus the stresses and strains that football brings.

It’s gone so far that the positive impact of the physical activity is getting buried beneath the negatives.

That has to be the point where we say stop.

There is a massive responsibility now resting on the shoulders of the GAA and the GPA.

When a report like this calls into question the impact playing their games is having on the mental wellbeing of their players, it is something very serious indeed.

They are duty-bound to act because, while they have not caused this irrationality, they continue to facilitate it and have done nothing of any consequence to discourage it.

There seem to be only two rational conclusions.

A complete divorce of club and county, with players at the latter level becoming semi-professional and no longer playing for their clubs, would remove some of the strain and see players recompensed for the strains of the inter-county game.

But while rational, it is not acceptable.

The other one is to scale back. Do we need an eight-month inter-county season, with three competitions? The cry has always been that we need more games – do we actually need fewer, and in a much smaller window?

For players to commit for three, four, five months of the year would be achievable and give them the freedom to have lives on the outside. It would give clubs a sense of purpose again, though their season is equally too long.

Football’s gone from a seasonal occupation of the mind and become a permanent one.

That is clearly upsetting the life balance of its players, and that must be redressed as a matter of absolute urgency.

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