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December 17, 2004

Amateur Ethic as Sales Pitch: can the GAA survive?

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

It is a commonplace to decry the decadence and sleaze of modern sport or sports entertainment, as it perhaps should be known. From footballers a-roasting to sprinters a-doping, from Olympiads dominated by drugs cheats to brawling basketballers, big time sport is a sordid realm.

It seems that in direct proportion to the media attention lavished upon it where once there was one sports page, maybe two in the broadsheets, now we see sports supplements and sports supplements within sports supplements sport has acquired the less attractive characteristics of society at large. Who could today make the remark attributed to an American judge who said he always read the sports pages first as they were the only part of the paper that was true? Even student sports have become increasingly intense and quasi-professional.

The sense of the amateur ethic as one of the last bastions of chivalry has been discussed before on the SAU weblog by Lincoln Allison. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) of Ireland is an amateur sports organisation which on many levels reflects the positives discussed by Lincoln Allison in his article. Yet its very success may threaten this amateur ethic.

The GAA sports are Gaelic football, hurling, camoige and handball. Handball is very much a minority interest, while hurling is huge in certain parts of the country and barely played in others. Camoige, the women's form of hurling, has enthusiastic and increasingly high profile adherents, as does women's Gaelic football. Gaelic football is universally popular around the country, although it is much less played in the city and suburbs of Dublin than in rural parts. In this article, references to "GAA competition" and "GAA players" are to players of both hurling and football.

If the GAA has impinged on non-Irish SAU blog readers before, it is probably via one of the many controversies over its rules over the years. Until the 1970s, "the Ban" forbade GAA members from attending, let alone playing, other sports an edict which led to the expulsion of even the first President of Ireland Douglas Hyde from the organisation. Until the formation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, members of British Army and the RUC were banned from membership of the GAA. And still, the GAA refuses to allow "foreign" games into Croke Park and other GAA grounds ("foreign games" meaning soccer and rugby, basically, since exhibition gridiron games and concerts featuring the likes of that well known Gaelic songster Neil Diamond have been regularly held) an issue that drags on and on.

All the controversies in the above paragraph are endlessly used by the GAA's many detractors in the Irish media and beyond as ammunition against an institution which they often clearly have no love or feeling for. It is not the intention of this post to accuse or defend the GAA on any of these scores (though en passant, I must note that the majority of grassroots GAA members support opening Croke Park to other codes, and politicking by Bertie Ahern's government has had as much to do with the failure to do so as any obscurantism on the GAA's part); partly to avoid rehashing these tired arguments, but mainly because it would be insanely boring to the majority of readers. Some readers may see the GAA as closely associated with Nationalism and Republicanism in Northern Ireland, which may be a black mark or otherwise in their eyes. Again, this post isn't about whether or not this is true, or if true if it is fair to damn the whole organisation nationwide.

What this post is really about is the GAA's role as a repository of the amateur ethic, as well as a community ethic. As well as being an amateur sporting organisation, the GAA is very much a local one. Margaret Thatcher is often damned by her critics for saying that there was no such thing as society; rather than the radical atomised selfishness these critics would suggest she was extolling, this statement was supposed to champion the role of "community", that oft-abused word. In the case of the GAA, "community" is, for once, not a cant word.

The highest level of GAA competition is the inter-county All Ireland series. Teams represent individual counties (which are, of course, a relic of the system of British administration) and compete first in a provincial championship. The provincial champions and the four teams that emerge from a qualifying series for those knocked out in the provincial championship compete for the All-Ireland title on a knock-out basis. However, the most fundamental unit of GAA competition is the club side. Clubs are locally rooted, based on parishes and townlands. The county and subsequent all-Ireland championships for club teams have become wildly popular in recent years. Amateur players are teachers, policemen, students, publicans, psychiatric nurses in other words, very like the crowds who watch them.

What's more, there is no "transfer market" in the GAA. Players play for the county of birth or of their occupation there have been controversial "switches" with jobs in larger counties mysteriously being created for talented players, but nothing at all like the abrupt switching of allegiances for big money seen in soccer. So unlike soccer, where one sees professional teams field entire teams made up of players born far from the country let alone city they play in, any given GAA team will be strongly rooted in the locality it represents. One wonders how many Manchester United or Chelsea fans have exchanged a single word with their representatives.

As suggested above, a form of "under the table" professionalism does exist to some degree in the GAA. But just as a similar phenomenon in amateur rugby union bore little relation to the slickness and true professionalism of fully professional rugby, the GAA is still overwhelmingly an amateur organisation. What money may change hands pales in comparison with any professional sport. The GAA has received government grants much of the outrage at their failure to open Croke Park to other sports stems from this fact yet as a total percentage of its expenditure this money is very small. Competing with the international hype machines of soccer and to some degree rugby, volunteer GAA members have created a nationwide system of sports facilities that double as community fulcrums.

Christie Davies has argued, on the SAU blog, that that if abortion was legalised in Ireland, the country's moral distinctiveness would be lost (which was not meant as approval of Ireland's prohibition of abortion) in a similar way, if the GAA became professional, it would become in many ways a sport like any other, its stars as drearily remote from the everyday experience of the spectators as any other. Aside from the excitement associated with the games themselves (hurling is the fastest field game in the world), this sense of purity rootedness in the local community it represents - is one of the main selling points of the GAA.

Advertisers use it to give their products a vicarious sense of "part of who we are". For instance, Guinness ran an ad featuring an unshaven, intense looking young man on a bus, evidently relocating from the country to Dublin. In voiceover, we hear him denounce all the small minded, small town attitudes that he is leaving behind. Exciting techno music pumps in the background. Yet at the end, we see the same young man listening with frustration to a handheld radio as his local hurling team fails again to win a county championship.

Other ads for Guinness, for Vodafone and for the banks feature hurlers and footballers disporting themselves, with slogans like "Part of who we are". I remember a series of ads promoting the Bank of Ireland's sponsorship of the All-Ireland club championships, with soft focus images of fathers and sons and the words. "You don't choose your club. Your club chooses you".

I must admit to finding the tenor of these ads rather distasteful. Firstly, despite my love for the sports played under the GAA's aegis, communal identity is less strong in suburban Dublin than in the countryside and no club chose me, alas. Generally I jump on the bandwagons of my parents' native places. The Bank of Ireland's ad in particular felt rather smug and exclusionary, with interested well-wishing neutrals seemingly not wanted.

Secondly, it must surely be hard to take for amateur players, whose training is close to professional in its intensity, to see these slick ads with airbrushed visions of the soft-focus virtues of their sport while they are shouted out by a coach during yet another series of shuttle runs on a freezing winters night. To what extent does the commercial exploitation of the GAA's virtues the closeness of its players to the everyday life of the places they represent, the chivalrous side of the amateur ethic discussed by Lincoln Allison weaken those values?

It is no surprise that recent years have seen the formation of an organisation, the Gaelic Players Association or GPA, which campaigns for the interests of players. For years individual players were strictly forbidden from profiting from endorsements the GPA has secured the end of this restrictive practice.

Some see the advent of the GPA as a healthy development anecdotal evidence abounds of the shabby treatment GAA officialdom has at times meted out to players. Others portray the GPA as the Trojan Horse carrying professionalism inside, a negative force in the deracination of the GAA. I find many of the critics of the GPA somewhat condescending, and tending towards an excessively romanticised view of the game but there is no doubt that a certain level of professionalism has already occurred, and is probably inevitable. There has been a trickle of GAA players to (professional) Australian Rules Football, which is similar enough to Gaelic Football for the two codes to play an odd hybrid international test series - a trickle increasing to a stream, and claming some of the more photogenic potential stars of the sport.

Can a sport have it both ways the slickness and intensity of professionalism and the strong, local emotions of amateurism? And can it use the latter to promote itself, without somehow compromising its virtue? Over the next decade or so, the GAA is going to find out.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a
contributor to the forthcoming Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).

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