Monday, May 30, 2005

"We'll keep the Strangely-Coloured-Sports-Drink Flag Flying Here"

So the battle lines are being drawn: the bosses (the GAA) and their henchmen (RTE) on one side, “Red” Des Farrell and the Gaelic Players Association on the other, the rights of men to guzzle strangely coloured sports drinks on camera at stake, and the threat of strikes on post-match interviews on the horizon.

Yes, a bit dramatic a synopsis of the recently brewing furore over GAA players strategically gulping from Club Energise Sport drinks. But there is something sinister about the tone of this affair that may cause difficulties ahead, even if they do not ultimately end up as serious as the situation that saw Cork’s hurlers down tools in 2002. RTE have claimed that they merely want to eliminate deliberate subliminal “product placement” of any item not considered part of a player’s equipment.

Brian O’Driscoll infamous Powerade consumption after Ireland’s Triple Crown success last year has been cited by those who support the players as an example of this phenomenon that didn’t bring such a draconian reaction from the Montrose bigwigs. RTE claim that the clampdown will extend to all sports, but it is tempting to sense the whiff of feudalism in the national broadcaster’s reaction.

The amateur nature of county GAA players, and the degree to which local pride rather than promise of reward fuels their ever-increasing commitment had, up until the appearance of the GPA, left them vulnerable to neglect- at least in proportion to the time and effort they expended for the cause. The holy grail of being “looked after” was what the GPA sought, and the commercialisation of the modern GAA off the back of the annual festivals of sport which the players served up only made their claims more valid.

Of course the new militancy amongst the players would not meet without resistance. Would the demands of the players be the thin end of a wedge that would lead ultimately to professionalism? The GAA of course, are not keen on the thin end of wedges. The Cork strike, however, did prove something of a test case, and the Rebel players ultimately got what they wanted, in terms of being “looked after”, and delivered in grand style on the field, All-Ireland runners up in 2003, and winners in 2004..

Subsequently it was clear to ambitious county boards that success could only be achieved by “looking after” the players and sparing no expense in preparations, a policy with the grave potential to cause Leeds United style meltdown. In illustration, the Roscommon county board recently announced that they were in deficit to the tune of €250,000. Of course Roscommon tend to do bad news better than anyone else, but the tale is cautionary nonetheless.

On the other side of the player militancy coin from simple matters of training gear, meals and gym memberships, is the rather more complex world of intellectual property and image rights. So while, in keeping with its new market-savvy modus operandi, the GAA sold advertising, sponsorship, exclusive access and TV rights to lucrative effect, the GPA understandably sought a piece of the pie for the very people who constituted the ingredients. Cue official GPA tie ins with telecommunications providers, and latterly, sports drink manufacturers. Cue conflict with the GAA who had entered into separate agreements with competitors of the companies linked with the GPA.

So when RTE announced the clampdown on “product placement” by players it was tempting to outline the conspiracy. RTE, aware of the increasingly competitive environment in sports broadcasting occasioned by the emergence of Setanta as well as the increasing presence of TG4 and keen to preserve the ‘special relationship’ with the GAA in light of any future diversification of broadcasting rights, were surely only too happy to do the association’s bidding and stamp down on the GPA’s impertinence.

By falling into line with Croke Park against a threat to the GAA’s commercial interests, RTE could challenge the players to withdraw their services from after match interviews altogether. Such an action, bearing in mind the Cork hurlers, would be eminently imaginable. The players carry the public’s goodwill in affairs like this. GAA fans are well aware of the commitment their heroes must give to bring success in the modern era and have rarely proved grudging of a few euros finding their way into players’ back pockets in return. If these few euros are coming direct from companies happy to pay for a slice of the dream, rather than being siphoned away from the grassroots, then all the better.
The GPA has never spoke the language of high Mammon, but has rather been resolutely clear that its intention is merely to earn adequate reward, within reason, for what the players contribute. They also contribute to player welfare funds and other worthwhile schemes. The GAA would do well to ensure that the players are “looked after”, and are not treated with the contempt of mediaeval serfs, as, for all the grandeur of Croke Park, the turnstiles don’t click to the promise of fine architecture.


Yesterday’s Leinster Football Championship matches, and those that have preceded it in the province thus far this year, proved that for another year the All-Ireland winners will not come from Leinster. There was little to worry football’s main contenders on show yesterday, and only Kildare, fitfully, seemed able to grow to fill the Jones’ Road arena. Laois stole a game from an Offaly team that didn’t want to win, their farcical shooting costing them a game that a limp Laois barely had the wherewithal to take from them. Mick O’Dwyer’s men have the talent to improve considerably however.

Westmeath displayed their inherent ordinariness, only Dessie Dolan carrying any spark, and after last years electric surge of emotion and opportunism a return to the ranks of the also-rans seems inevitable, and there’ll be little Paidi can do about it.

That the province’s last two champions could be so average with largely the same teams as won those titles demonstrates that, for all those victories will forever resonate in the respective counties, and for all that the achievement of them was glorious and commendable, the current mediocrity of the province puts their true worth in sharp perspective.


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